Are There Better Things to Obsess Over Than Plastic Waste?

How do you feel about plastic waste? A core group of lawmakers in Washington are so obsessed with it that they have introduced legislation designed to force manufacturers to subsidize municipal recycling and transition to recycled or compostable packaging materials. Here is a question: are there better things to obsess over than plastic waste?

The Hill’s Howard Husock wrote a compelling piece in early November 2022 discussing this very topic. He started by mentioning legislation introduced in 2020 and 20221 known as the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. If passed, the legislation would allegedly target everything from water bottles to plastic utensils.

Husock goes on to explain that a number of states have entertained similar legislation in recent years. California has even gone so far as to implement a law. Their law extracts $500 million annually from manufacturers who use certain types of plastics. The money goes into a fund dedicated to investing in a plastic recycling industry that Husock says “doesn’t meaningfully exist” at this time.

Municipal Recycling Is a Failure

Husock rightly points out in his piece that municipal recycling is a failure. It is a money-losing proposition that must continually be subsidized to keep it going. Why? Because virgin plastic is so much cheaper than recycled material. Why would manufacturers spend more money on an inferior product?

Before going any further, it should be noted that what applies to municipal recycling doesn’t necessarily apply to its industrial counterpart. Where so many municipal programs fail, industrial recyclers like Memphis, Tennessee’s Seraphim Plastics succeed.

Seraphim and its competitors have created a system whereby they can recycle industrial plastic waste at a profit. If you were to compare their business model against the typical municipal recycling model, you would quickly understand why they succeed where curbside recycling programs do not.

Consumer Electronics a Bigger Issue

Industrial plastic recycling aside, Husock goes on in his piece to identify another part of the waste stream he believes deserves our attention more than plastics: consumer electronics. Not only are they a gold mine of recyclable materials, but they also pose more risk to the environment than plastic bottles and food containers.

Husock specifically mentions cell phones. That is probably not a coincidence. America’s obsession with cell phones has most of us buying new models every couple of years. The old ones hang around in the junk drawer for a while before ultimately ending up in the garbage can. From there they go straight to the landfill.

Inside a typical cell phone are a variety of plastics that are easily recycled. But let’s not obsess. There are other valuable materials as well. Circuit boards and electronics can be picked clean with very little effort. And don’t forget televisions, computers, portable music players, et al. They are loaded with recyclable materials for which there is an actual paying market. Turning our attentions to consumer electronics would keep tons of stuff out of landfills and give municipal recycling programs materials they could actually sell at a profit.

Plastic Makes for an Easy Bogeyman

Reading Husock’s piece brings one face-to-face with the realization that the current war on plastic doesn’t make any logical sense. So why are politicians, pundits, and environmentalists obsessed with it? Here’s a suggestion: plastic makes for an easy bogeyman.

Obsessing over plastic makes it easy to lay the blame at the feet of manufacturers for the sole purposes of extracting money from them. They are an easy target. But go after cell phones and music players, and you are targeting industries we take more personally. We can’t have that now, can we?