Recycling Lies Offer Lessons on Right to Repair

Recycling Lies Offer Lessons on Right to Repair

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This month, an investigative exposé revealed that the plastic industry knowingly promoted recycling as a silver-bullet solution while being aware for more than 30 years that it is not a viable fix for managing plastic waste. The report, published by the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI), revealed internal documents showing that industry insiders acknowledged the economic and technical challenges of plastic recycling while concealing this information in their marketing campaigns.

Plastics sorted for recycling
Plastics sorted for recycling in Mexico City, via Carl B. Campbell on Flickr

The deception surrounding the recyclability of plastics parallels the ongoing debate over the right to repair in our modern consumer products, particularly electronics. Just as the plastic industry promoted the idea of recyclability while knowing its limitations, manufacturers of electronic devices often tout the durability and longevity of their products while implementing design strategies that hinder repairability. Efforts to promote the use of cheap, single-use plastics date to the 1950s and coincide with a concerted effort to divert public attention from the polluting effects of plastic, a report in the Guardian notes. At a 1956 industry conference, the Society of the Plastics Industry, a trade group, told producers to focus on “low cost, big volume” and “expendability” and to aim for materials to end up “in the garbage wagon.”

After decades selling the public on the idea that plastics can simply be tossed into landfills, the industry began to face public backlash in the 1980s amid grassroots calls for bans on plastic products. The result: an industry push for recycling. The Plastics Recycling Foundation was formed in 1984 and brought together petrochemical companies and bottlers to fund campaigns highlighting the sector’s commitment to recycling. There was only one problem: the industry knew all along that plastics recycling was neither economically nor practically viable, the report shows. The Vinyl Institute noted in the mid to late 1980s that plastic recycling would not solve the “solid waste problem” and could not go on indefinitely. Forty years later, plastics production shows no sign of decreasing. An OECD report from 2022 found that the world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, with just 9% successfully recycled and the rest ending up in landfills, incinerated, or leaking into the environment.

The volume of plastics recycling far outweighs heavily marketed attempts at upcycling, like this pen made out of PlayStation 2 plastic. Image via Foam on Flickr.

The lies over the impact of plastics can easily be translated to our disposable products—especially electronics. Our accumulation of plastic in the environment is driven in part by the mass production and disposal of goods. It’s creating crises in microplastics, biodiversity loss, water and air pollution, and countless other disasters—what some are calling a polycrisis. And even though there is no question that people are motivated to shop and act sustainably, that doesn’t do anything to make products repairable. Consumers valuing sustainability alone won’t stop industries from lobbying against environmental and repair-focused initiatives—just as they did with plastics.

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  • Appliances are less reliable than they used to be. A report by the Wall Street Journal finds that American households spent 43% more on home appliances in 2023 than in 2013, even though prices for the category have declined 12% from a decade ago. One reason for the discrepancy: a higher rate of replacement. The report is based on Yelp data that showed users requested 58% more quotes from appliance repair businesses last month than they did in January 2022.
  • Belgium is introducing a repairability index for household appliances: While a positive step, concerns have arisen about its effectiveness without broader support measures. Plans also under scrutiny for lacking spare part prices in the index calculation.
  • Disposable vapes are a growing environmental hazard: Contributing to waste and pollution due to their unrecyclable nature and toxic battery components, calls are growing for stricter regulations and enforcement to curb the widespread availability and usage of disposable vapes.