Op/Ed: Darien High grad urges against single-use plastics

The single stream recycling sign at the Darien Refuse and Recycling Center.

The single stream recycling sign at the Darien Refuse and Recycling Center.

Darien Recycling Center Facebook page

The holiday season is upon us and we all know what that means: packages upon packages filled with gifts for friends and family. Whether it’s from Amazon or a small business, almost everyone will be recycling much more cardboard, paper, and plastic than usual this month. But what really happens to this recycling?

Up until recently, as far as I knew I dropped off waste at the Darien Recycling Center and it all magically went away.

However, I have since come to terms with one fact: plastic recycling is a lie. Industries that utilize single-use plastic know this, and they have known since the 70’s. These companies knew that they would lose business when people eventually realized plastic is ending up in landfills rather than being recycled. In order to avoid this, they spent millions of dollars to fund recycling centers and create pro-recycling advertisements to mislead the public into believing that single-use plastic is not harmful to the Earth. Yet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 10 percent of plastics are recycled—most are sent to landfills. This is because recycling plants are inefficient, expensive, and very few firms have put the time or energy into improving them.

Now, don’t get me wrong — Darien’s Recycling Center is great. Their Facebook and Twitter pages are informative, helpful, and easy to utilize. Darien uses single-stream recycling which accepts a wide assortment of recyclables, but not everything. While single-stream recycling leads to roughly three times more recycled materials, disposing of products (like medicine bottles that are too small or single-use beverage cups) that do not belong in single-stream recycling wastes time and money for the recycling plants, as they have to take the time to remove products that we chose to dispose of incorrectly. But even if we dispose of our materials correctly, there’s only so much recycling centers can do when they are overwhelmed with plastic.

Even recycled plastic becomes more difficult to use over time, as plastic degrades each time it is melted down. It is less expensive and easier to make new, higher quality, products out of oil than to spend time and money recycling what has already been created. To be clear, I believe limited recycling is better than no recycling. However, I also believe money from plastic and oil companies should be put into creating better, more efficient recycling, rather than towards convincing consumers to separate their waste. This is a producer problem, and they have convinced us that there must be a consumer solution. While this is not fair, for now we must come to terms with it.

So instead, it is our job as consumers to value our planet over convenience. I urge you, when possible, to make the decision to avoid single-use plastics. Educate yourself on single-stream recycling and make sure you are doing it correctly. Take advantage of the Recycling Center’s food scraps program. Purchase reusable alternatives like cloth bags for the grocery store, a reusable water bottle, or many of the other sustainable alternatives available. This holiday season do your part and give a gift back to the Earth by recycling correctly and utilizing sustainable alternatives.

For more information, I highly recommend NPR’s “How big oil misled the public into believing plastic would be recycled.”

Cassie Maroney is a member of Darien High School’s Class of ’19, and currently in her sophomore year at Bowdoin College.