Buying a gadget made with recycled plastic instead of brand-new materials might sound like an environmentally friendly investment, but it does very little to cut down on the heaps of plastic pollution and electronic waste that are trashing the environment and ending up everywhere — including in our own bodies.
Think of plastic pollution like an overflowing tub in your bathroom, says Josh Lepawsky, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who maps the international movement of electronic waste. “If you walked into that, probably the first thing you would do would be to turn off the tap — not grab a bucket and a mop, if you think of the bucket and the mop as recycling,” Lepawsky says. Turning off the tap equates to staunching the production of plastic goods. Trying to clean up a growing mess won’t address the root of the problem. “It doesn’t mean, don’t use a bucket and a mop. But that’s not turning off the tap.”
Cutting down waste means cutting down consumption
Cutting down waste means cutting down consumption. That’s something that can’t be solved with flashy new product offerings, even if those products are made with recycled materials. Companies need to sell fewer products that last longer so that gadgets aren’t so disposable in the first place. Hyping up recycling can actually stand in the way of that.
Oceans of plastic
The scale of the plastics problem is massive. As of 2017, humans had produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic (for comparison, a rhinoceros weighs about 1 metric ton) — much of which can persist in the environment or in landfills for hundreds of years. Recycling has done little to stop that mess. Only 9 percent of plastic waste has ever been recycled, research has found. People send at least 8 million tons of plastic into the ocean every year, where it might end up in giant garbage patches, arctic ice, the bellies of sea life, and back inside our bodies.
“We can’t recycle our way out of this problem—acute reduction of plastic products, recycled or not, is the solution,” Max Liboiron, an associate professor of geography at Memorial University who researches plastic pollution, said in an email to The Verge. “Even the production of new plastic items that use some of these ocean plastics as feedstock will result in a net increase in plastic pollution.”
“We can’t recycle our way out of this problem.”
Take Microsoft’s new “Ocean Plastic Mouse,” which has a shell made with 20 percent recycled plastic. Any potential environmental gains that might come with that 20 percent recycled material could potentially be wiped out if the company sells 20 percent more mice, says Lepawsky. It’s a pitfall ecological economists describe as the “rebound effect” or “Jevon’s paradox.”
To have the most impact, products should be made with 100 percent recycled materials. But that’s nearly impossible with plastic, which is why it’s pretty typical for companies to only use a small percentage of rehashed plastic in their products. Plastic quality deteriorates with each use. Because of that, it’s difficult to make a new bottle out of an old bottle or a new mouse out of an old mouse. Microsoft’s mouse, for example, required the company to create a new plastic resin that’s only partly reclaimed plastic and combines those beads of recycled plastic with new plastic, too. When all’s said and done, it’s more likely that a product will be downcycled rather than recycled. That means it’s used to make something that doesn’t require high-quality plastic. Plastic bottles, for instance, are often turned into thin fibers used in carpeting and fleece.
Even using 30 or 40 percent dirty plastic in the mouse probably wouldn’t be feasible, according to Claire Barlow, deputy head of the engineering department at the University of Cambridge who specializes in materials engineering and industrial sustainability. The quality of the dirty plastic just isn’t good enough, she says. It might not have the strength or durability required for the product, or it could just be too difficult to process. So the fresh plastics are used to make up the difference.
All those weaknesses with plastic also make it more difficult to recycle something that’s already been made with recycled materials. There comes a point when plastic can’t even be downcycled anymore. When it reaches that point, it’s typically incinerated or sent to landfills.
Microsoft is far from alone when it comes to making new environmental claims with recycled materials. Logitech has made a big push to sell items with post-consumer recycled plastic. Samsung is even making watch bands with “recyclable” and supposedly eco-friendly materials, including apple peel. The trend also extends far outside of tech to food packaging, fashion, and even toys.
Several factors could be driving that trend. The sheer magnitude of the plastics problem has brought it to more consumers’ attention. Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are also tied to another environmental crisis that’s come to the forefront more lately: climate change. Recent research shows that shoppers are thinking more about the sustainability of the brands they buy. Tech companies have come under a lot of pressure lately for the harm they do to the environment — particularly when it comes to their air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use. Employees at Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and other tech giants have published letters pushing their companies to stop polluting and to stop working with fossil fuel companies altogether. While companies have announced smaller steps like using more recycled materials or fully offsetting their emissions — they haven’t agreed to meeting their employees’ more ambitious demands.
Without turning off the tap for plastics waste, smaller actions could amount to mere greenwashing
Without turning off the tap for plastics waste, smaller actions could amount to mere greenwashing — a term used to describe efforts to make something (like a brand) seem more eco-friendly than it really is while glossing over the real environmental harm for which it’s responsible.
One example of greenwashing, according to Cambridge’s Barlow, is the emergency of bio-sourced plastics that can be just as bad or even worse than traditional plastics. A majority of bio-sourced plastics, made with things like corn instead of oil, still aren’t biodegradable, she says. And raising the crops those materials are derived from might actually lead to more water use and greenhouse gas emissions than traditional plastics. “There’s a big question mark on those. When you probe, sometimes it’s fine, but most of them, it’s greenwash,” she says.
Vague terms like “recyclable” also raise red flags for experts with whom The Verge spoke. Razer announced a goal earlier this year to make all of its products with recycled or recyclable materials by 2025. But a lot of things might be recyclable in theory but not in practice — like Amazon’s plastic shipping envelopes. Most municipal recycling programs won’t actually accept them, so consumers need to take the packaging to drop-off points for it to be recycled. Few people actually do that, according to at least one survey by ocean advocacy group Oceana.
Meaningful action on the plastics problem will require much bigger changes. When companies try to tackle huge problems like climate change and plastic pollution with small announcements about recycling and changes to individual devices, Lepawski says, “It’s nibbling around the edges, dealing with symptoms and not systems.”
The Product Stewardship Institute and other environmental advocates are pushing for policies that would force companies to take greater responsibility for what happens to the devices they sell after customers are done with them. Companies would be required to take back items or shoulder the costs associated with responsibly disposing of them. In the absence of those policies, municipalities and taxpayers wind up carrying the financial burden — or the environment pays the ultimate cost if that’s where trash winds up. Municipal recycling programs are still recovering from the global shock in 2018 when China stopped accepting most recyclable goods. With no one to sell dirty plastics to, some curbside recycling programs in the US shuttered or started sending more materials to landfills and incinerators.
Still, experts worry that a hot market for recycled materials could keep the incentives and infrastructure in place for producing more plastics — whether they be recycled or not. Microsoft partnered with Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), a subsidiary of oil company Saudi Aramco, for its Ocean Plastic Mouse. Big Oil has tried to push its plastics business as a growing line of revenue as efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions cut into its fuel business.
Microsoft’s new webpage for the Ocean Plastic Mouse tells consumers that they can recycle their old mouse by mailing it into Microsoft — although there’s a disclaimer at the bottom that says its recycling program is only available in certain countries. Consumers concerned about the environment would be better off keeping their old mouse rather than recycling it and buying a new one, says Sydney Harris, policy and programs manager at the Product Stewardship Institute.
“They’re creating new demand for a flashy new product that I don’t need because I have a perfectly functioning mouse right now,” says Harris. “That is not sustainable, inherently. I should be holding on to my mouse until it’s on its very last legs and stops working.” But even that can be hard to do when companies continually release new devices that might be incompatible with old accessories — like new laptops or phones with missing headphone jacks and different designs for chargers.
When tech companies design things that quickly become obsolete, they drive another growing disaster: e-waste. E-waste contains materials beyond plastic like mercury and lead that can be toxic to people and the environment. Affluent countries like the US send much of their e-waste abroad, where it often winds up in makeshift recycling facilities that can put workers’ health at risk.
“It’s actually very useful to brands to keep the attention downstream.”
The focus on post-consumer recycling ultimately shifts responsibility from companies to their customers. That will never lead to the type of deep, systemic change needed to stem the world’s waste problems, says Lepawsky. “Individual consumer action will never match the scale of the problem,” he says. Typically across industries, he says, there’s way more waste generated during the manufacturing process — before a product ever gets to market — than trash that consumers throw out. “It’s actually very useful to brands to keep the attention downstream on post consumer waste, because then it means the regulatory eye is kept off of their manufacturing process.”
There’s a lot of other things that big tech companies might also want to hide from prying regulatory eyes — from privacy and moderation concerns to employees coming forward about prejudice and abuse. But, hey, at least they can say they recycled something, right?