Is Recycling Plastic a Myth?

According to a new analysis by Greenpeace USA, plastic recycling is a myth. 

We know that the numeric carbon footprint of plastic production in itself is incomparable to other materials. Regarding plastic material’s entire lifecycle, they have a significant carbon footprint and emit 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Despite knowing this, most people justify their plastic indulges by claiming to be avid recyclers. However, to put plainly, plastic, which is made from fossil fuels, is notoriously difficult to recycle. There are thousands of different types of plastic, each with a unique chemical composition that can be divided into broad categories. Most must be carefully sorted in order to be processed because they can’t all be recycled at once. This is considered the largest hindrance to plastic-recycling’s success. The  thousands of different plastics containing their own composition, characteristics, chemical additives and colorants make it impossible to  recycle together. Then, considering the rate of production, consumption and usage, there are not enough resources to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing (Enck and Dell).

Senior plastics campaigner for Greenpeace USA, Lisa Ramsden, said “If plastics were a country, they would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world.” According to International Organization for Standardization (ISO), “ plastic production is expected to double by 2040 and increase by 2.5 times by 2050.” This growth can be attributed to general industrialization, but also simple mismanagement of existing plastic. The release of microplastics into the ocean, littering, food takeaway packaging and sanitary yet unsustainable throwaway medical equipment add up to the statistics we see. 

The Greenpeace report also finds that “no type of plastic packaging in the U.S. meets the definition of recyclable used by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy (EMF NPE) Initiative. Plastic recycling was estimated to have declined to about 5–6% in 2021, down from a high of 9.5% in 2014 and 8.7% in 2018. At that time, the U.S. exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China and counted it as recycled even though much of it was burned or dumped.”

According to the OECD, “Bans and taxes on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries but are not doing enough to reduce overall pollution. Most regulations are limited to items like plastic bags, which make up a tiny share of plastic waste, and are more effective at reducing littering than curbing plastics consumption. Landfill and incineration taxes that incentivise recycling only exist in a minority of countries.”

Despite their good intentions, the 3Rs are no longer as reliable as they once were. Recycling cannot be an excuse for overconsumption. The first step is to reduce the materials we use in our daily lives, and then reuse what we already have. Essentially the way to avoid these recycling disasters is by not indulging in single-use plastics to begin with. 

The Science Behind Warming Waters

Carbon dioxide generally dissolves in water. This is why the oceans are responsible for  absorbing about 30-50% of the CO2 produced from burning fossil fuels. Cold water is better at dissolving and absorbing gasses like CO2 compared to warmer water, which is why a large amount of it gets dissolved in the ocean’s chilliest waters. This is generally speaking. 

Now, with ocean temperatures on the rise, rather than absorbing co2, oceans are beginning to release it. According to Or Bialik, a geoscientist at the University of Münster in Germany, it’s the same thing that happens in a bottle of soda that is carbonated with carbon dioxide. “You usually keep it cold, so the dissolved gasses will stay dissolved. If you leave it in your car for a while and try to open it, all the gasses are going to pop out at once, because when it warms, the capacity of the fluid to hold CO2 goes down.” 

With this development, came the formation of carbonate crystals in the Mediterranean Ocean. Experiments done by Bialik and team proved Aragonite, a type of calcium carbonate, was forming abiotically. These crystals are generally used in marine animals as part of their protective shell. However, in addition to the rising sea temperatures creating dissociated crystals, the calcium carbonate within marine shells are simultaneously breaking down as a result of varying pH. 

The absorption of carbon dioxide creates carbonic acids, which introduces free hydrogen ions that form with carbonate ions, resulting in fewer carbonate ions for the shells of marine organisms, therefore, these organisms have smaller shells. The ocean’s pH ranges from 7.5 to 8.4, but increasing carbon dioxide levels correlates with a decreased pH, which interferes with marine organisms’ ability to form calcium carbonate shells. Essentially, if the pH is lowered, then the calcium carbonate shells of marine organisms will break down because they act as a buffer to stabilize increasing acidity in the water.

These are interesting, contrasting phenomenons that are further explained in Matt Simon’s Wired Article on the Mediterranean forming carbonate crystals. “As these crystals form, they release CO2. So much so, Bialik calculates, that they account for perhaps 15 percent of the gas that the Mediterranean Sea emits to the atmosphere.

As the sea warms up and loses its CO2, both from the water belching it up and from the proliferating crystals, its acidity actually goes down. This is the opposite process from the one that’s causing widespread ocean acidification: As humans spew more CO2 into the atmosphere, the oceans absorb more of it, and the ensuing chemical reaction raises acidity. Acidification makes it harder for organisms like corals and snails (which are known collectively as calcifiers), to build shells or exoskeletons out of calcium carbonate. But as the Mediterranean warms and releases its absorbed carbon back into the atmosphere, it gets more basic, reversing that acidification.”

For more on this topic visit The Mediterranean Sea Is So Hot, It’s Forming Carbonate Crystals.

For a more in-depth summary on the evaluation of pH, temperature and calcium carbonate breakdown, take a look at my AP Environmental Science lab report: Ocean Acidification Lab

What is Tidal Energy?

Tidal energy is a renewable energy powered by the natural rise and fall of ocean tides and currents (National Geographic). Generally, these energy sources are developed in areas where there is a high difference between high and low tide, to maximize the potential energy derived. Though Tidal Energy has not yet developed to be produced on a large scale, scientists have continued its research as it could be a potential non-renewable energy source replacement. 

Tidal Energy generators include tidal streams, barrages and tidal lagoons.

Similar to how wind turbines function, turbines are placed in tidal streams to take the fluid energy and convert it to usable electricity. Because water is much more dense than air, tidal energy is more powerful, predictable and stable than wind energy (National Geographic). These turbines, however, are most effective in shallow water, which also allows for minimal disruption to water bodies, ships and aquatic ecosystems. 

Barrage, another tidal energy generator, serves as a large dam through which water is controlled from high to low tide. These barrages still use turbines as most energy sources require a “trigger,” most often replicated in the shape of a wheel. Barrages have a much larger environmental impact than tidal streams, as they require large, uninterrupted water bodies and serve as barriers to marine life. 

Functionally, barrages are similar to tidal lagoons, other than the fact that tidal lagoons can be constructed on natural coastlines. Because of the lack of heavy machinery, marine life is not threatened by the formation of these tidal lagoons. However, another result of the lack of machinery is the low energy output. 

Currently, the United States has granted $35 million in funding tidal and river current energy systems. Because of the minimal carbon footprint, many scientists have hope for this sector’s energy potential.Alejandro Moreno, who is acting assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said oceans and rivers represented “a huge potential source of renewable energy.” The Department of Energy (DOE) said the funding would come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (CNBC).

Numerous tidal power-related projects, including some in the United States, have advanced significantly in recent years. For instance, the European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkney islands. began grid-connected power generation in July 2021 using what has been labeled “the world’s most powerful” tidal turbine. 

The use of tidal energy is steadily increasing. “In data released in March 2022, Ocean Energy Europe said 2.2 MW of tidal stream capacity was installed in Europe last year, compared to just 260 kilowatts in 2020. For wave energy, 681 kW was installed, which OEE said was a threefold increase. Globally, 1.38 MW of wave energy came online in 2021, while 3.12 MW of tidal stream capacity was installed. By way of comparison, Europe installed 17.4 gigawatts of wind power capacity in 2021, according to figures from industry body WindEurope” (CNBC).

Such facilities want to further test tidal turbine blades under demanding conditions, hoping it will hasten the advancement of marine energy technologies and reduce costs.

How will the Inflation Reduction Act play a role in fighting Climate Change?

On August 16, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill that will invest $369 Billion into climate solutions (EarthJustice). This act will invest in domestic energy production and manufacturing, putting us on the road to reducing carbon emissions by roughly 40 percent by 2030 (Senate Democrats).

The money set aside for environmental justice also stresses natural solutions regarding agriculture and forestry. These  “nature-based” climate solutions include about $20 billion for agricultural conservation and $5 billion to safeguard forests around the country (Congressional Research Service).

Relying on natural sectors does not discredit the energy sector’s efforts to reach net-zero through carbon capture and renewable energy infrastructure, but rather encourages both sectors to work in tandem. Humans must use trees, wetlands and other ecosystems that absorb carbon dioxide  to reduce Earth’s warming. However, if permafrost melts, forests are burned, marshes are drained, or wildfires rage, land also releases greenhouse gasses back into the atmosphere. These gasses that warm the globe occur from anthropogenic land mismanagement (deforestation and unsustainable farming).

According to The Washington Post, The Inflation Reduction Act would help strengthen current initiatives, such as a $700 million program to permanently protect forested land through conservation easements and local government purchases, $450 million to assist private landowners in better managing their forests, and $100 million to fund grants for environmentally friendly uses for wood. 

Along with these, this act includes tax reductions for electric vehicles, huge financial incentives to expand carbon-capture facilities, promoting green hydrogen production, and increasing renewables funding (wind, solar) in the United States (The Washington Post).

EarthJustice listed clean energy transition wins:

  • Expanding access to clean energy by making clean energy tax credits more accessible and extending them by 10 years.
  • Creating jobs and increasing our country’s energy security by investing $60 billion in manufacturing solar panels, batteries, and other clean energy technologies in the U.S.
  • Providing funding for low-income families to electrify their homes, including $9 billion in home energy rebate programs.
  • Removing barriers to community solar, an innovative solution to making solar power more accessible and affordable for the average person.

Check out What the Inflation Reduction Act Means for Climate for a more detailed list about the Inflation Reduction Act.

SCOTUS Limits EPA Powers to Repress Carbon Emissions

EPA Rundown

Associations like the EPA have managed to hold our major polluters accountable, ensuring America stays within its limits to reach UN SDGs and comply with COP21. On a specific note, the EPA has kept our air clean through enforcing the Clean Air Act preventing 230,000 early deaths and boosting our economy with the high benefits estimate exceeds costs by 90 times. Along with this, the Clean Water Act has been another benefit of the EPA, especially in situations like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. 

This organization donates more than 40% of their funds to states to assist with their environmental efforts- and goes even deeper to hold companies accountable and monitor their emissions. (Top 10 Reasons We Need the EPA)

What Now?

The United States, home to only 4% of the global population, burns fossil fuels at a rate higher than the rest of the world. Second to China, America emitted 669.5 million metric tons of Co2 equivalents in 2020– meaning America is an important player in the battle of curbing carbon emissions. 

Recognizing this, Biden’s administration wants the U.S. power sector decarbonized by 2035.This is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development goals and COP21 Paris agreements, stating that all countries would work to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius. 

However, the US Supreme Court placed restrictions on the federal government’s authority to reduce carbon emissions from power plants- going against President Biden’s plans. The West Virginia V. The Environmental Protection Agency is part of a conservative activist plan- many who have direct relationships with coal and oil manufacturers, to limit executive powers on combating global warming.  The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the 1970 Clean Air Act permits the E.P.A. to impose broad controls on the electricity industry or restricts it to imposing adjustments at specific power plants. Republican attorneys and coal companies argue that EPA regulations impact the economy and these rules should be set up by Congress, rathe than federal agencies (i.e. the EPA). 

The court’s 6-3 decision limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) control of GHG emissions from current coal- and-gas-fired power plants. According to the New York Times, “this ruling curtails the E.P.A.’s ability to regulate the energy sector, limiting it to measures like emission controls at individual power plants and ruling out more ambitious approaches like a cap-and-trade system without the intervention of Congress.” This means the government does not have the power to force fossil-fuel based plants to more sustainable power sources.

Disclaimer: All these views are my own and do not reflect those of any affiliation.

Quick Thoughts on Lululemon’s Like New Program

“Like New” is Lululemon’s concept where customers can exchange their gently used pieces in stores for credit and buy previously owned apparel online (CNN). Though trade-ins are not accepted at outlets, they are accepted in all stores in the US. 

This idea uses closed-loop recycling, ensuring used clothes do not end up in landfills. Closed-loop recycling follows the process that recycles and reuses post-consumer products to supply the material used to create a new version of the same product (Road Runner).

After analyzing the program, it is clear that buyers have a better deal than sellers in this case. However, sustainability wise, 100% of this program’s profits are invested into their sustainability initiatives.

Initiatives include using less water, innovating more sustainable ideas and decarbonizing their value chain (Be Planet). 

Pros: Over 12,000 women’s clothing, transparent condition communication (gently used, good as new), prices are nearly 40% lower than original, returns are accepted within 30 days and all profits go to green-initiatives. 

Cons: Credit value is lower than reselling on other sites, not all items are accepted

The credit goes as follows:

•$5 – Shirts, Shorts, Skirts, $10 – Hoodies, Sweatshirts, Sweaters, Pants, Crops, Leggings, Dresses, Large Bags (Backpacks, Duffles, and Totes larger than 10L), $25- Outerwear

You can find a more detailed analysis here.

Overall, despite the lower credit value, this initiative works toward greater sustainable development goals, making it worth it long term. 

New Jersey Bans Plastic Bags in Stores

In November of 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the plastic bag ban into law. This barred grocery stores from giving customers single use paper and plastic bags, and placed penalties into effect for those who violate the order. Single-use paper carryout bags are allowed to be provided or sold, except by grocery stores equal to or larger than 2,500 square feet, which may only provide or sell reusable carryout bags (Business.NJ.Gov). According to New Jersey Monitor, violators first face a warning, then a $1,000 fine that jumps to $5,000 for their third breach and any thereafter.

A pleasant greeting at my local Shoprite.

If the Department of Environmental Protection determines that there is no cost-effective non-plastic substitute, plastic objects might be added to the list of exemptions. Exemptions are valid for a year and can be renewed.

This law previously halted the distribution of plastic straws, ensuring that restaurants only provided them when specifically asked. 

The truth is, these laws have already shown tremendous impacts, with the upshot of the Sydney study showing the California bag ban reduced plastic bag consumption by 71.5% – a huge decrease (The Truth About Plastic Bags). 


Plastic is never the better choice. Throughout both manufacturing and usage, it constantly pollutes and has proved to be hazardous. Furthermore, it is a dangerous threat to marine and land-based species and in the end, must be destroyed or buried, even after a lifetime of being recycled. Bag bans will not solve the plastic challenge on their own, but they will assist to shift plastic consumption habits and encourage consumers and retailers to consider alternatives (Conservation Law Foundation).

The Dangers of Single Use Plastic (Conservation Law Foundation)

All in all, even in a world pre-ban, consumers are more likely to bring reusable bags when penalties on paper bags are included in single-use plastic bag bans. A cotton bag can be reused hundreds of times and composted after it’s no longer needed. With all this considered, plastic is always more harmful and damaging than the alternatives.

How is Deforestation Caused by the Fashion Industry?

When we talk about Fast Fashion’s environmental impact, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is the waste pollution associated with the clothing production. However, right beside the climate footprint is the deforestation footprint caused by this industry. 

First, it is important to note the importance of forests. They are responsible for life on Earth, to put plainly. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “They purify the air we breathe, filter the water we drink, prevent erosion, and act as an important buffer against climate change.” Essentially, we know that the world runs on a loop, and everything does its own job to reach that stage of equilibrium. 

As humans, one of the primary anthropologist causes of global warming is the abundance of carbon dioxide emissions. However, forests play a role in finding a middle ground (our CO2 release through inhaling their oxygen). And the circle continues. But you knew that already. 

Research shows that 48% of fashion’s supply chain is linked with deforestation. The demand on cutting trees for fabric production is estimated to double by 2050. 70% of all clothing produced by such fibers end  up in landfills every year. Landfills that are created after the major clear cutting of vital forests. According to Kleiderly, fabrics from rainforests account for 5% of the total 1.2 trillion dollars in the textile industry globally, with this number growing at a 9% rate annually. 

Furthermore, the clear cutting of forests for landfills and lack of carbon emission mediation do not begin to address the full human impact. According to non-profit Canopy, more than 200 million trees are logged each year to be transformed into cellulosic fabrics like viscose and rayon. The organization notes that if these trees were placed end-to-end, they would circle our planet seven times. We use trees to make fabrics for the clothes we use so mindlessly. These trees live for centuries, but they are being cut down for our 2 week-long garment trends. 

So now we know about the impacts; the question of what we can do remains. 

  1. Avoid all uncertified viscose and rayon
    1. Some of these products are specifically planted for garment creation, so its better to use these. 
  2. Use alternative sustainable material
    1. Tencel
      • Tencel is made from fast-growing Eucalyptus trees grown specifically to create the material
      • No biodiverse forest risk involved
      • Closed loop recycling 
    2. Ecovero
      • Made by the same company which created Tencel, Lenzing
      • Made from ‘certified renewable wood sources using an eco-responsible production process by meeting high environmental standards’
      • Manufactured with up to 50% fewer emissions and water impact than generic viscose

Check out my other blog: 9 Sustainable Fabrics To Be On The Lookout For for more on the fabrics perspective.

In the end, everything is related. We know the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, and this unfortunately does not stop at carbon emissions. 

The environment is interconnected, everything is an ecosystem- so if one part is impacted, the whole biosphere goes haywire. 

Fashion Industry’s Impact On Biodiversity

We know about the fashion industry’s impacts in relation to climate change, with the abundance of pollution, resource usage, and wasteful creation/disposal tactics. On a more specific note, apparel production plays a huge role in biodiversity disruption, from habitat loss to direct field sports. According to an article by McKinsey, “Apparel supply chains are directly linked to soil degradation, conversion of natural ecosystems, and waterway pollution” (Biodiversity: The next frontier in sustainable fashion); meaning the sustainability of general ecosystems are threatened by the ever-growing fashion industry. 

It is clear that biodiversity loss and climate change have a reciprocal relationship. For example, deforestation leads to increased climate change (due to an abundance of CO2 emissions), and in turn, rising temperatures lead to habitat destruction and biodiversity decline. 

An analysis by McKinsey and Company determined that most of the negative impact comes from three stages in the value chain: raw-material production, material preparation and processing, and end of life. This is primarily determined by land use, water use, and energy consumption. 

Based on their findings, they pinpointed the top five sectors that contribute to biodiversity loss: cotton agriculture, wood-based natural fibers/man-made cellulose fibers (MMCFs), Textile dyeing and treatment, and Microplastics and waste. 

With these sectors being incredibly important in the manufacturing industry, they have recognized that there is no viable solution that includes getting rid of said-sectors completely. Solutions overall include scaling up the company’s sustainability-focused quarters. 

To improve the sustainability of cotton, MMCFs, and synthetics, multiple technologies have already been established. Precision agriculture, integrated pest management (IPM), and micro-irrigation reduce water and chemical intensity to a certain extent. With efficient technology, there are always trade–offs, whether it be cost or guaranteed quality- however a mix of different variables can concoct more feasible solutions. 

Additionally, investing in innovative fabrics can pave the way for organic, biodegradable and renewable materials to be turned into clothing. Reusability goes hand-in-hand with renewing. Not only do recycled fibers repurpose trash, but they also have a reduced biodiversity footprint than virgin fibers.

By maintaining a strong stance on land and water pollution, on the barest level, companies will be able to protect ecosystems from further harm- consequently protecting their biodiversity. 

Take a look at McKinsey and Company’s comprehensive analysis of the fashion industry’s role in the circle of biodiversity! 

Biodiversity: The Next Frontier in Sustainable Fashion

How is fast fashion culture exaggerating the effects of plastic pollution?

The general picture that comes to mind after hearing “Plastic Pollution” probably consists of plastic bottles and bags clustered together on roads, waterways and neighborhoods. While these everyday plastics do fit the description, plastic pollution does not solely describe garbage visible to the naked eye. 

Different industries release different forms of “microplastics”- defined as “fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length,” according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency. 

The severity of the issue microplastics bring when discussing water pollution is quite unfathomable when considering its’ miniscule size. However, most people fail to recognize that the majority of the plastic floating in the ocean does eventually break down into smaller pieces. Only 6% of plastic pollution in the ocean is visible, because the rest breaks down and sinks to the ocean floor, polluting food webs and habitats. 

Many microfibers originate from clothing materials, like polyester and nylon- which come from synthetic fibers, i.e. plastic. In 2016, 65 million tons of plastic was produced for textile fibers, representing close to 20 percent of the total plastic production for that year. Not only that, but plastics from the fashion industry are responsible for generating enormous amounts of wastewater and emitting huge quantities of carbon (How Plastic Pollution).

While these statistics can be attributed to the fashion industry in general, the pace at which fast fashion moves multiplies its’ own environmental effects. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, published by Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2017, noted how the fast fashion industry has increased demand for plastic-infused clothing in recent decades due to quicker turnaround of new styles, increased clothing seasons per year, and lower prices. Fast fashion relies on massive new plastic production to fuel growth. According to the report, virgin plastic accounted for 63 percent of clothing materials used in 2015, compared to less than 3% recycled material (How Plastic Pollution). 

Basically, because of the constant weekly trends set up by fast fashion companies, they fall into a cycle of overproduction and wastage, just to continue pumping out clothes to seduce buyers. Rather than sticking with classic styles and the general 4-seasons-per-year clothing releases, fast fashion has plunged into 52-season years, increasing clothing production by 13 times. And, for those who get sucked into staying up-to-date with Shein’s overwhelming new releases, they are forced to constantly buy new clothes to avoid looking blatantly behind.

To meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced the Fashion Pact at a G7 meeting in 2019. The pact included 32 companies and 150 brands (including Gucci, Chanel, and Nike) containing a set of shared goals that the fashion industry could work towards to reduce their negative impact. “Clothing companies and brands are encouraged, but not mandated, to: 1) achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, 2) restore natural ecosystems and protect species, and 3) reduce the use of single-use plastic. For example, Stella McCartney is eliminating virgin plastic in her collections by using recycled polyester and upcycling materials” (How Plastic Pollution is Being Woven into Fast Fashion Culture).

With this, if fashion companies reduce their fast mindsets and adhere to their sustainability goals, we can be on our way to reducing waste, and consequently plastic pollution.