This investigation into plastic packaging has revealed a great deal of information. Most plastic packaging is used only once, its chemical stability keeps it from degrading in the environment for many years, and it is accumulating in landfills. The processes that produce the plastics use fossil resources, pollute the air and water, and consume large amounts of energy.

It seems clear that producing and using plastic as a packaging material, and taking market share from more recyclable and reusable packaging, is a bad idea from an environmental standpoint. So why is the plastic packaging business growing? One big reason is that popular misconceptions about plastic production and reprocessing contribute to the industry’s growth. Some of them are presented here.

Misconception # 1: Plastics that go into a curbside recycling bin get recycled.

Not necessarily. Many plastics are unrecyclable, and the recyclable ones must be separated out. The rest go to waste.

Collecting plastic packaging at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new packaging. In fact, most recovered plastic packaging is not made into packaging again but into new secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber – all unrecyclable products. This does not reduce the use of virgin materials in plastic packaging.

One of the goals of the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, an industry association formed by major resin producing companies, is to increase curbside pickup of plastics. The Council’s “Blueprint for Plastic Recycling” is aimed squarely at convincing the 6,000 or so municipalities around the country that already have curbside recycling service to add plastics. How this material is to be handled after being picked up is not addressed in the blueprint, however. In many cases, communities have adopted collection programs only to find that there is no reasonable market for the material, or that they must incur additional costs to clean and separate it to market specifications. “Recycled” in these cases merely means “collected,” not reprocessed or converted into useful products.

Misconception # 2: Curbside collection will reduce the amount of plastic landfilled.

Not necessarily. If establishing collection makes plastic packages seem more environmentally friendly, people may feel comfortable buying more. Curbside plastic collection programs, intended to reduce municipal plastic waste, might backfire if total use rises faster than collection. Since only a fraction of certain types of plastic could realistically be captured by a curbside program, the net impact of initiating curbside collection could be an increase in the amount of plastic landfilled.

Furthermore, since most plastic reprocessing leads to secondary products that are not themselves recycled, this material is only temporarily diverted from landfills.

Misconception # 3: A chasing arrows symbol means a plastic container is recyclable.

The arrows are meaningless.

Every plastic container is marked with the chasing arrows symbol. A survey of 804 people in Saint Paul, Minnesota, revealed that 7 out of 10 people believed the symbol means “recyclable.” Many even believe the symbol indicates the container is composed of recycled material. Actually, the only information in the symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container.

The plastics industry adopted this symbol in 1988 to identify the resins when state legislatures were discussing bans on plastic containers. But the plastics industry says it never intended the chasing arrows to indicate recyclability or identify recycled content, but only to be a catchy graphic to point out the number inside that identifies the type of resin. The symbol is misleading; nevertheless, the plastics industry has resisted consumers’ efforts to modify it.

The attorneys general of 11 states also objected to false and misleading claims about plastic recyclability. The recent settlement that they reached with the American Plastics Council paves the way for a first-ever definition of what claims can or cannot be made about plastic recycling and recyclability.

Misconception # 4: Packaging resins are made from petroleum refineries’ waste.

Plastic resins are made from non-renewable natural resources that could be used for a variety of other applications or conserved.

Some people believe that the raw materials for packaging plastics come from an otherwise useless industrial waste stream. They believe that if these plastics were not made, the raw materials would be dumped into the environment as a hazardous waste. But actually, most packaging plastics are made from the same natural gas used in homes to heat water and cook.

Misconception # 5: Plastics recyclers pay to promote plastics’ recyclability.

No; virgin resin producers pay for the bulk of these ads.

Billboards that claim plastic is recyclable and beseech consumers to get involved imply that plastic recycling is an established industry impatiently awaiting consumer participation. In fact, most such ads are placed by virgin plastic manufacturers whose goal is to promote plastic sales. These advertisements are aimed at removing or diminishing virgin plastic’s greatest challenge to market expansion: negative public conception of plastic as unrecyclable, environmentally harmful, and a major component of wastes that must be landfilled or burned.

Misconception # 6: Using plastic containers conserves energy.

When the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers from virgin materials, and much more than making glass containers from recycled materials. Using refillables is most energy conservative.

Energy use studies that compare various packaging materials often do not account for the large amount of energy required to synthesize plastic resin. Most of the energy and environmental costs of plastics are hidden because they are incurred in the plastic factory. Also, life-cycle assessments often assume containers will be used only once. The practices of refilling and reuse, especially if carried out on the local level, have the greatest potential for reducing energy consumption no matter what material is used to make the containers.

Misconception # 7: Our choice is limited to recycling or wasting.

Source reduction is preferable for many types of plastic and isn’t difficult. Opportunities include using refillable containers, buying in bulk, buying things that don’t need much packaging, and buying things in recyclable and recycled packages.

Many people take plastic packaging as a given and narrow the issue down to the simple question of how best to dispose of it. In the resulting turmoil, obvious alternatives may be overlooked, such as reducing or eliminating our consumption of plastic packaging. Simple, effective source-reduction strategies for individuals and households are: a) using refillable containers; b) buying in bulk; c) selecting products that use little or no packaging, and d) choosing packaging materials that can be recycled and are made from recycled materials such as glass, metal, and paper. Holding companies accountable for the material they sell by legislatively demanding recycled content also has been shown to work on the city, state, and national levels.

Why are there so many misconceptions? The use of plastic as a packaging material is on the rise. Since so many products are available in plastic packaging, the choice of plastic is a matter of convenience. The desire for convenience coupled with a throwaway mentality or culture supports the flow of disposable plastic packaging. Yet people are concerned about the accumulation of discarded plastic in landfills and in the environment; they show this by participating at a high level in curbside collection programs and voting for mandatory container deposits. The conflict of interest between the convenience of throwaway containers and responsibility for long-lasting waste and environmental damage has shifted public hope and attention to plastic recycling.

The popular ideal appears to be for some sort of technological breakthrough to make using plastic acceptable without requiring any change in consumption or discard practices. The plastics industry has responded by advertising plastic recyclability and joining the chorus of technological optimism while continuing to promote the consumption of single-use plastics.