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The Limits of Recycling

by Richard Spence

The American sage, Yogi Berra, coined the phrase: “It’s deja vu all over again.” While Berra was referring to baseball, this same phrase could apply to the broken, but sincere, efforts to recycle plastics on the part of municipalities and the American public.

For decades, packaging manufacturers have been accused by environmentalists of playing a duplicitous role in influencing public opinion. The iconic “Crying Indian” campaign of the 1970s is often cited as a prime example. It was created by the Ad Council for Keep America Beautiful, Inc., founded in 1953 by nonprofit groups and businesses, including can and glass manufacturers. The ad features an actor playing the Native American role, weeping as he canoes down a trash-littered river surrounded by industrial plants expelling pollutants into the air. The mixed messages expressed in the ad and the underlying motives behind its production are described in a 1917 Chicago Tribune article, “The Crying Indian ad that fooled the environmental movement,” written by Finis Dunaway. Dr. Dunaway, a history professor at Trent University in Canada, is the author of “Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images”

In the 1990s, the fossil fuel industries sponsored effective campaigns to initiate recycling to promote the expanded production of plastics and also to capture the public’s approval. “Plastic Wars,” a PBS FRONTLINE report is an example: it featured industry executives who created ad campaigns and popularized recycling while privately noting that there was little chance the efforts would be successful. Today only a small fraction of plastic items labeled recyclable have economic value. The rest end up in landfills, which are running out of space.

With markets for fossil fuels gradually eroding, the industry aims to replace oil and gas profits with plastic revenues. It’s the 1990′s all over again. The lobbying and public relations campaigns emanate from huge corporations. Trace the plastic offensive back to oil industry giants and consumer and big tobacco companies, which inject plastic cigarette butts into the environment.

With the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, legislators at the national level attempted to confront the plastics industry and mandate accountability for plastic waste. The COVID-19 pandemic has this initiative on hold.

Today the industry’s deliberate misinformation campaign also seeks to persuade the public that any initiatives to restrict single-use plastics are misguided, indeed dangerous, to the health of the American population, thereby avoiding discussion of plastic’s carbon footprint and its ecological impact on the planet.

What Can We Do?

Plastics fragment into micro- and nano-plastic particles which permeate soil, water, and the food supply of all living creatures. Photograph by John Cameron/Unsplash

To start, we should recognize that industry sponsorship and promotion of recycling is a diversion, not a solution. In the 1990s and again today, the fossil fuel industry has blamed the consumer for the plastics glut through the promotion of recycling programs. But who profits in the future while their products do ecological harm in the guise of convenience? Tell legislators to hold these industries financially accountable for their products, which pollute not only our lives but those of generations to come.

Remember, plastics do not break down into their chemical components, but fragment into micro- and nano-plastic particles, which permeate soil, water, and the food supply of all living creatures.

Action Steps

What positive actions can we as individuals and collectively as communities take to slow or even reverse the environmental disaster of plastic pollution? It seems nearly impossible for the consumer to avoid the products of the large plastics producers. But as citizens, we can write to the corporations and lobby locally and at the state level for a solution to the plastic pandemic.

Call, message, chat and express your concerns to Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Unilever, Dow, Exxon-Mobil, Shell, Altria, British-American Tobacco - all identified by Greenpeace in Fighting Plastic Pollution, a public pressure campaign aimed at corporations that depend on large-scale use of plastics to deliver their products. Let them know that you have reduced use of their products and are recommending to friends and family that they do the same as you reject throwaway consumerism. Public corporations are measured by the quarterly bottom line.

As individuals, recycling still works for bottles, plastic containers, and cardboard. The plastic container recycling numbers found on the bottoms of these items are 1, 2, and 5. Study and initiate ways to reduce single-use plastics in our daily lives. For example: At home, stop using plastic wrap: wash and reuse plastic storage bags, and buy cereals and other dried foodstuffs in bulk. At the store, request paper instead of plastic or take your groceries to the car in the cart and then place them into reusable bags. Patronize stores and restaurants that avoid single-use plastics, Styrofoam, and plastic straws. Inform owners and workers that you appreciate their efforts to reduce plastic use. Educate your children.

Make Your Voice Heard

As community members, advocate for local governments to take steps to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics, patronize suppliers who offer alternatives, encourage local governments to recognize businesses that strive to reduce their plastic footprint and educate others to help make the places they live in better by reducing plastic waste and trash. Insist that readily available means for collection and disposal are in place. Support elected officials who are advocates for a better environment and policies that reduce single-use plastics.

Recycling and single-use plastic reduction is a process. It took forty years to create the plastic crisis; it will take time to reverse this threat to our environment.


Richard moved with his wife, Susan, to Dover after retiring from Morgan Stanley where he worked for over 32 years as a Senior Vice President and financial planner. After serving in the U.S. Army artillery, he received a Master's degree from the University of Vermont and a PhD in Medieval History from Syracuse University, and held a post-doctoral post at Berkeley's Boalt Hall, School of Law. Following his education, he joined Dean Witter, which later became Morgan Stanley. As an outdoorsman, he is very interested in the environment and the Great Bay and presently is a member of the Dover Democrat's Energy and Environmental Action Committee. Richard chairs a sub-committee, the Plastics Group. He canvassed for Democratic Candidates in 2018 and presently is doing the same for the 2020 election.

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content and the opinions expressed within it. For information on the Dover Democratic Committee, our mission, values and policies, please see “About Us” on this website.

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