Does Recycling Plastic Do More Harm Than Good?

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Plastic is everywhere. Unless you’re a hermit living in the woods, avoiding it completely is next to impossible. Even when you eliminate your personal plastic consumption, you could unknowingly be consuming goods that were packaged in plastic before you received them.

For instance, pallets of goods are often shrink-wrapped in plastic for easy transport, and retail associates stock shelves with goods that arrive in plastic-wrapped cases.

At the grocery store, you’ve seen people unload their basket and place their reusable shopping bags on top. The irony is they still put their meat in disposable plastic produce bags, and most of their food comes wrapped in plastic.

There’s nothing wrong with reducing plastic waste one product at a time. More than 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. Individual efforts to reduce this number are worthwhile. The situation becomes complex, however, when you realize the extent of the problem — it’s not just plastic packaging and single-use bags.

While conversations about avoiding plastic are never in short supply, there’s an equally important conversation that deserves some airtime:

There’s a huge market for purchasing goods made from recycled plastics. Does this market reduce the urgency of finding ways to eliminate plastic?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at how recycled plastics are being used to produce popular consumer goods.

Turning Recycled Plastic into Clothing

In 1993, outdoor clothing company Patagonia began making jackets with recycled plastic bottles that were woven into soft, durable fabrics. Today, they’ve been turning trash into polyester fabric and outdoor gear for more than two decades.

Patagonia has an extremely loyal customer following due to its purpose-driven environmental practices. If they were just another outdoor clothing company, their products would still be high quality, but they wouldn’t command the same level of loyalty. People want to buy recycled goods.

Patagonia jacket

Photo: Patagonia

Does the demand for recycled goods dissuade corporations from reducing their plastic production? Does knowing their waste will get recycled reduce a corporation’s sense of duty to find alternatives to plastic? Should consumers avoid buying goods made from recycled plastic?

Perhaps in some cases the answer is yes, but the issue isn’t black-and-white. Companies like Patagonia are doing their best to make use of other people’s trash. They have a 30-year history and reputation for environmental preservation, and as far as anyone knows, they’re not creating plastic waste. However, when a corporation produces the plastic waste they later turn into goods, plastic recycling can become a double-edged sword.

Coca-Cola: Resourceful or Sketchy?

Coke sells more than 110 billion plastic bottles per year, according to Greenpeace. For the past seven years, they’ve been earning royalties from branded products made with their own recycled plastic bottles.

Bottles get recycled into plastic polymers. Photo: Adobe Stock

In 2012, music artist Will.i.am partnered with Coca-Cola to create Ekocycle, a brand that recycles plastic into products like shoes, luggage, chairs and bed sheets for luxury hotels. These products are sold to businesses willing to pay a royalty to sport the Ekocycle brand. That royalty is split between Will.i.am and Coke.

From the consumer’s point of view, this seems like a move in the right direction. However, this could be an incentive for Coke to continue producing plastic. If consumers demanded a switch to glass and Coke obliged, their cost of production would skyrocket. Within a few years, plastic bottle waste would be drastically reduced. Eventually, other brands would follow suit and the supply of plastic to make recycled goods would be limited. Great for the Earth but not for Coke’s profits.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that we’ll never see enough consumer demand for glass beverage bottles due to the inconvenience. In that case, Coke’s Ekocycle brand is a responsible solution that allows them to stay in business, meet consumer demands and take care of their waste.

The fact that they earn more money on the back end is a little disconcerting. However, if that’s what motivates them to keep plastic waste under control, it might be the best solution we have at the moment.

Reducing Before Recycling

Whether plastic recycling encourages plastic pollution or not, the market for goods made from recycled plastic isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon, and neither is the market for bottled beverages. In the meantime, you can reduce your personal plastic use in these ways:

Should you continue to support companies that make a profit off their plastic waste? There are no easy answers to some of our most pressing environmental dilemmas, and only you can decide what’s right for you.

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Jenna Cyprus

Jenna is a freelance writer and business consultant who covers business, technology and entrepreneurship. She's lectured for several universities and worked with more than 100 businesses over the course of the past 15 years. She's a mother of two kids, and loves to go camping, hiking and skiing with her family.