French theorist Roland Barthes fell in love with it. It is “ubiquity made visible. . . a miraculous substance,” he wrote in his ground-breaking book Mythologies. So what wondrous material is he describing?
Granted, he was eulogising it in the mid-1950s, when plastic was new and sexy. By the end of the 1960s, however, the romance was over, as Philip Bell in Nature Materials (Nov 1, 2004) noted. “To the sixties generation, ‘plastic’ meant fake, worthless, an association crystallized in The Graduate in 1968, when all the hollowness of American consumerist society is revealed to Dustin Hoffman, through the famous career advice: ‘I just want to say one word to you. . .’ ”
Now there’s even less ambiguity about plastic. It’s become just plain toxic.
And getting rid of it? Don’t get me started. Perhaps because I’m at home practically all the time due to lockdown, the small rituals of household management have become magnified, or else I’m becoming, horrors, more “mindful”. Whichever it is, I’ve been struck by the sheer amount of plastic our two-person household produces, and how much of it we throw out every week, in a variety of ways.
As well as the volume, the work of sorting it seems to have grown exponentially.
A tray of carrots, for example – why can they not be sold loose? – requires you to separate the film/plastic covering – non-recyclable – from the tray – recyclable. Then there’s the wrapper with all the brand and nutrition information. This is sometimes paper or cardboard, but it can be laminated or coated with something shiny that makes it seem plasticized. So where does it belong?
First world problem, I know. But as we have learned, first world problems have a habit of impacting on the poorer parts of the globe. And plastic, most of which does not decompose, is a significant driver of global climate change.
Before I even get to decide how to clean and sort plastic waste, I spend a great deal of time, Alan Turing-like, decoding it. (I should definitely be getting out of the house more often.)
I realise that I’ve been confusing the Green Dot symbol (above) with the Widely Recycled logo. The two can be easily confused on casual perusal, the kind you use when you’re tossing things in the bin. I’ve often mistaken them in the past, that is, until I actually checked the small print. The small print that has to be chased down on the web.
The so-called Green Dot (which is actually an arrow) doesn’t mean the item is recyclable; it means the company which produced the product has donated money to the recycling of products somewhere in the world. Oh yeah?
Not to be confused either with what is called the Mobius symbol (above) which, according to Ireland’s official guide to waste management, mywaste.ie “indicates that an object is capable of being recycled”. Where is Barthes when you need him?
It does not mean, apparently, that the object “has been recycled or will be accepted. It does not necessarily mean that it should be placed in your household recycle bin either”.
The most infuriating symbol, however, is the one that reads – Not Yet Recycled.
The adverbial use of yet suggests that its status is on the brink of change. Any moment now you can put this in the green bin, it seems to say. But this is a myth – a carefully elaborated fiction. Far from concentrating on making more plastic reusable, producers are intent on just making more plastic.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped with its monumental demand for face shields, gloves, takeaway food containers and bubble wrap for online shopping, most of which cannot be recycled.
Here’s the business bit. A special Reuters investigation, “The Plastic Pandemic”, published in October found that COVID-19 has intensified a price war between recycled plastic and new plastic, which is made by the oil industry. “Nearly every piece of plastic begins life as fossil fuel,” its author, Joe Brock writes.
“The economic slowdown has punctured demand for oil. In turn, that has cut the price of new plastic,” the Reuters report continued. “The oil and gas industry plans to spend around $400 billion over the next five years on plants to make raw materials for virgin plastic.”
Virgin plastic? (They mean new.) As if we don’t have enough with the experienced plastic that’s already been around the block?
The same report depressingly observed that of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste the world has produced since 1950, 91% has never been recycled.
It’s enough to make the average consumer throw in the towel – but wait, which bin does that go in?
Meanwhile, our general refuse is swamped with material that is “not yet recycled”.
Not yet? Not ever, more likely.