I grew up in the 80s and 90s learning about the importance of recycling. Blue boxes were introduced everywhere – schools, homes, malls, parks, and other public spaces all encouraging us to reduce, reuse and recycle. The mantra reduce, reuse, recycle was drilled into us, but somewhere along the way it just became recycle, recycle, recycle. We seem to have forgotten that recycling is the last step, the last resort if you will, in our waste management process – and the myths of plastic packaging recycling have created some disastrous consequences for the earth and our health. The inconvenient truth is that recycling isn't all we think it is, and we're going to have to do a little more.
I know this might sound dramatic but the amount of garbage being produced has kept me up at night. It happened after I watched the "Recycling Scam" episode of the Netflix series Broken. We are producing more plastic than ever, and less and less is recyclable. I hate that kids toys are becoming as disposable as our plastic-derived clothing. (You know what polyester and acrylic are, right? Plastic!) I hate that everything comes over-packaged and with all the online shopping we do, there's now packaging on top of the packaging. The sequin trends, the plastic microbeads in personal care products, the plastic clamshells that berries are sold in, the startling amount of e-waste we're making by constantly wanting to upgrade our gadgets (and the makers themselves building obsolescence into their products).
Okay, I'll stop here. It's all just so much, and it's so unnecessary.
The content of this post is troubling and overwhelming, but the bright side of the coin is there are many things we can do to reduce our plastic use! We have so many options and so many ways to personally make an impact – which is what inspired my newest course for the Academy of Culinary Nutrition called Everyday Culinary Nutrition.
First, the reality check.
How Much Plastic Are We Buying/Throwing Away?
(The above is a sweet clip from my new Everyday Culinary Nutrition course)
I was disturbed to discover recently that Canada, where I live, produces the most waste in the world – 1.33 billion metric tonnes per year total, which is 36.1 metric tonnes per person. Of course, not all of this is recyclable and plastic waste. Despite our recycling programs, only 9% of our plastic is actually recycled – the rest mainly ends up in the landfill (86%), 4% is burned, and the remaining 1% ends up in the oceans.
This tracks with global statistics – that 9% number is the same in the US, and since 1950 only 9% of plastics ever created have been recycled. We are using plastic more than ever before. Nearly half of all plastics ever produced have been made since the year 2000.
Plastic doesn't degrade quickly, so once it's made it's here to stay. And BPA-free plastic is still plastic.
We've been convinced that we can somehow offset or cancel out our plastic waste by recycling it, but most of the time what we're tossing into our bins just ends up as garbage. Let's take a look at some common recycling myths and what we can do about them.
MYTH: All plastics are recyclable
I'm sorry to say that they are not. This is one of the biggest myths of recycling. Plastics are labelled with numbers from 1 to 7 – you can read the full details about what the numbers mean here. Generally, plastics labelled with 1, 2 and 5 are more easily recycled.
The challenge with plastics is that they don't all have the same properties, which makes it much more difficult to melt them down together – they just aren't compatible. Also, just because something is recyclable doesn't mean there are the facilities or equipment in every community and area to process it. This has led to countries shipping their plastic waste across oceans to let other countries deal with it (see more on that below).
Plastic production is only expected to increase in the next few decades. The Environmental Defence states that "Even if we started to recycle ten times more than we have in the last 30 years, we won’t be able to catch up with the massive wave of plastic production being projected."
In short, we have failed in our recycling management.
Again, I highly recommend watching "Recycling Scam", an episode that is part of the Broken documentary series on Netflix. It takes an in-depth look at how and why the world's plastic is recycled, and how industry and lobbyists are working to ensure our plastic feast continues – it's well worth the time to watch it.
Breaking Down The InCONVENIENT TRUTHS ABOUT RecyCLing
Truth #1: Just Because We Drop It In The Recycling Bin, Doesn't Mean It's Recyclable
Even if we are conscientious recyclers, only putting things in the bin that belong there, still doesn't mean they'll end up being recycled. For example, at the residential level, if we don't clean our containers properly they are considered contaminated and are sent to the landfill.
If we don't clean our containers properly they are considered contaminated and are sent to the landfill.
Also, being able to sort your residential recycling matters. Some cities have separate bins for glass, plastics, and paper – this makes it easier to recycle everything. In places like Toronto, where I am, we toss everything in one bin and this is a challenge that leads to more items being thrown in the landfill.
There is an additional human error if people don't pay attention at all and toss a ton of non-recyclables into the bin, which contaminates the entire bin. The contamination rate in Toronto is 26%. This has both financial and environmental costs.
Truth #2: We Create More Plastic Garbage Than We Can Manage and So We Ship Our Trash Overseas... Or Used To!
Our plastics, other recyclables, and garbage are being shipped to third world countries to deal with. I'm not just talking about Canada here, but also the United States and a number of other countries. For many years, China took plastic waste from around the world but after a ban in 2018, they are no longer accepting it. This left countries scrambling for alternatives, sending plastics and waste to places like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines – with some countries like Malaysia taking a stand and sending it right back.
We can't take the 'out of sight, out of mind' attitude anymore. There is no 'away'. All these plastics have to go somewhere!
Truth #3: Recycling is Not As Environmentally Friendly As We Like To Think
If an item is successfully recycled, then sure, that is more environmentally friendly than not being recycled. But as we know only a small percentage is actually recycled, plus it takes fossil fuels and water to make plastics in the first place and then transform them into something new.
As well, plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times – so eventually it will end up as garbage even if it was made into yoga pants along the way.
The claim "made from recycled plastic", which usually only includes a portion of the material, makes us feel good. It makes us feel like we are making a responsible purchase decision, but plastic remains plastic. Made from recycled plastic is better, but it's not a solution.
Truth #4: Bioplastics or Other Compostables are Commonly Not Recyclable
Companies have been coming up with plastic alternatives made from things like corn, starches, oils, and other cellulose fibres. Corn-based takeaway containers and packaging are not as compostable or recyclable as we think because most cities don't have the right equipment to break them down, and they don't mix with other plastics so they will be thrown out due to contamination.
Still, I appreciate that companies are working towards innovative solutions. It just seems to me that everyone is operating in silos rather than working together to ensure the infrastructure is there from the creation of a plastic alternative to its endpoint.
Truth #5: Until Industry and Government Step In, It Is Up To Us To Do Something About Plastic Consumption and Recycling
It might seem like we are all helpless against the tidal wave of plastic crashing down upon us. This isn't true!
Yes, at times I do think it's unfair for these massive companies to place the recycling responsibility onto us as consumers rather than changing their practices. After all, it was their desire for cheap materials and larger profits, and their marketing manipulations to get us to buy those products, that have contributed to this mess.
However, I wholeheartedly believe that if millions of us make small changes they all add up – and this is something that will benefit the environment and our health. Plus, our consumer habits have a trickle-up effect that can convince companies to change their ways.
What We Can Do To Help
Solution: Reduce and Reuse First!
The first thing we can do is be more mindful of our plastic consumption. Try to avoid buying food in plastic containers or single-use takeout containers. Yes, this means more cooking at home and fewer Uber Eats.
Take your own shopping bags to the store and use fabric bags for produce, and bring your own containers for bulk items. There are zero-waste grocery stores popping up where you can get everything from shampoo to olive oil to gluten-free pasta in refillable containers.
One of the things we've started doing is bringing our own glass containers to the butcher when we buy meat, and avoid purchasing meats that are pre-packaged as much as possible.
Solution: Stop Buying/Drinking Bottled Water
Bottled water is a scourge and one of the most common single-use plastics. What you are buying in many cases is a plastic bottle with some tap water in it. The water source for bottled water isn't as pure or pristine as the labels would like you to believe. And most of those bottles just end up in the landfill or the oceans.
Solution: Make More From Scratch
Even if you're buying a nutritious item or staple, it will likely come in a plastic or paper package like bread, crackers, hummus, guacamole, soup, etc. Learn how to make staple items from scratch using whole ingredients. I have a huge collection of recipes here to get you started.
Get on the waitlist for my newest course, Everyday Culinary Nutrition, where I teach you how to make easy culinary basics from scratch that allows you to minimize your packaging.
Solution: Aim For Products in Glass Instead of Plastic – and Reuse Them
Choose store-bought food items that are stored in glass – you'll not only reduce your exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, but you can also reuse them for low-waste shopping, meal prep or food storage.
Solution: Pay Attention to Recyclable Numbers When Buying Products
If you must purchase a plastic package, check the recyclable number to see if it is a 1, 2 or 5. And then ensure you clean it and recycle it properly.
Solution: Avoid Storing Your Food In Plastic
Skip buying the plastic Tupperware, plastic wrap and plastic baggies for food storage. Here are 5 alternatives to plastic for food storage you can try.
Solution: Refill Larger Single-Use Containers
More and more package-free shops are popping up and even our local hardware store has a refill station. These options invite us to save and refill laundry soap containers, vinegar, shampoo, soap, cleaning products and more. Refilling requires little effort yet is a big game-changer. Here in Toronto, I love the curated products at Saponetti. Also, making your own products is also a fun option.
Solution: Eat More Seasonally
When we buy berries in the summer, it's more likely we can find them in paper containers or plastic baskets that farmers will take back. We can easily then avoid the single-use plastic clamshell. Shopping seasonally means buying winter squashes and root vegetables in the winter, instead of plastic-wrapped cucumbers and cauliflowers.
Solution: Be Mindful of Shopping Habits
Take stock of what you actually have and buy what you need, rather than mindlessly buying new synthetic fabric-made (polyester, acrylic, sporting fabrics) fast fashion clothes, shoes, electronics, the newest gadgets, and other items. If you have kids, it can feel impossible to prevent the plastic garbage from creeping into your home. Take a Marie Kondo-style approach to toys and empower your kids to understand why you're collectively making the choices that you are. A minimalistic approach to shopping can result in amazing results – find out what happened during my experiment with minimalism.
Take Action and Speak Up
Speak up and show your support for local initiatives like plastic bag bans, bans on straws or bans on single-use plastics. There is legislation happening at local, provincial/state and federal levels so look up your local representative in government and tell them how you feel about plastics, and what you'd like to see happen in your community. You can also write to companies.
Please remember that it's easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar – so remember to be respectful when asserting your voice.
In response to my recent deep dive into this matter, I was inspired to create my newest course for the Academy of Culinary Nutrition called Everyday Culinary Nutrition. Though the focus is not on the waste we make, it is on how we can cook more from scratch and less from packaging. Please check it out here.
No-Plastic Grocery Shopping Challenge
Want to join me for a no-plastic grocery shopping challenge? For one week, try saying no to all plastic.
- No plastic bags, no plastic packaging, no single-use takeout or coffee cups
- Bring your own bags to the grocery store, buy loose items only (produce, bulk, etc.) that aren't encased in plastic
- Take your own containers/reusable mug if you want takeout of some kind
- Save empty dish soap, laundry soap, shampoo bottles and visit your nearest refill depot
Let me know how you did in the comments!
- How Plastic Food Packaging Affects Your Health
- Unexpected Sources of Microplastics
- 5 Ways to Store Food Without Plastic
- Where Does Your Plastic Go? Global Investigation Reveals America's Dirty Secret
- Plastics Recycling Worldwide: Current Overview and Desirable Changes
- Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made
- Branded: Identifying the World's Top Corporate Plastic Polluters
- Economic Study of the Canadian Plastics Industry, Markets and Waste