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๐ŸŒฑ Zero Recycling, All Waste | Co-opting the Circular Economy

Part III: Breaking Society's Reliance on Plastics

Sam Chavez
Sam Chavez

Table of Contents

Welcome Back! ๐Ÿ‘‹๐Ÿผ

The plastics crisis has mainly focused on recycling. Thanks to corporations obscuring the harms, they used their influence to shift blame. In fact, recycling is rare and outsourced to the Global South, leading to waste colonialism. Read on for more...

In Case You Missed It: Unstoppable Plastics Growth, It's Complicated

I kicked off our plastics series talking about the business cycle of Big Plastics. When you zoom out to look at the full cycle you realize very quickly that the waste is not the problem. It's the over-production of plastics in the first place.

Who's responsible for plastic waste? For plastics to wash up on a beach or clog up ocean life, it first started as fossil fuels that were then manufactured using fossil fuels as energy to make plastics, which were then crafted into the public facing product (a soda can, car parts, plastic fibers in our clothes). It went through the hands of multi-billion dollar corporations with knowledge about plastics' harms before it even became waste.

Even the economists at Barronโ€™s agree that plastics is a problem. Just last week, they featured a piece on fossil fuel companies eyeing plastics as a get-out-of-jail-free card to increase their profits even as the public demands a phase out of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabian Oil, the worldโ€™s largest oil company, plans to send about a third of its oil to chemical plants to make plastics by 2030.

While we really need to focus on pressuring the frontend of the system (the fossil fuel industries and plastics companies looking to maximize profits before the public catches on and permanently phases out of this era), itโ€™s also important we see the consequences at the end. Especially when the industry works hard to cover them up. Letโ€™s talk recycling. โ™ป๏ธ

Recycling Didn't Have a Chance

Recycling has been a big deal in the last few decades! There have been countless organized movements to increase recycling efforts. Many well-meaning companies, celebrities, non-profits, and governments have lead these efforts, but how much of those efforts were worthwhile?

Frontline, NPR, and PBS released a volcanic documentary called 'Plastic Wars.' It was a 54 minute documentary that investigates how the plastic industry co-opted the recycling movement to shift the publics efforts away from the harms of plastic production. In the 1980s, the Council of Solid Waste Management, a front for the plastics industry, influenced government recycling programs. Plastics companies lobbied to add the all too familiar recycling symbol โ™ป๏ธ to make it seem like plastics was less climate risky. They spent millions of dollars to lobby and spread a disinformation campaign to grow recycling as a solution the the public's frustrations about plastic. They even supported and funded non-profits to push recycling as a solution. They used tactics to hide the harms so they could co-opt and dilute climate solutions for their own profit.

Plastic Wars | FRONTLINE
Watch FRONTLINE and NPRโ€™s investigation of the fight over the future of plastics.

And the public believed the disinformation campaign. We've had massive recycling programs that promote individual responsibility to clean up the plastics crisis. They're almost saying "If that mom of three just recycled more, we wouldn't have a climate crisis!" What those recycling arrows really signify is the constant passing of the buck to the public.

In actuality, recycling is nearly impossible and can be as carbon intensive as producing plastics. Only 10 percent of the entire supply of plastics since the 1950s has ever been recycled. It's easy to see why, when you look at the options.

  • Standard recycling: Usually plastics are shredded or melted to try and be used for other purposes. What makes it hard to recycle is that only certain plastics can actually go through this process, they need to be sorted from the other plastics, and the recycled material is much less usable.
  • Incineration: Another alternative is burning plastics, which hurts the environment. In 2019, incineration recycling plants added 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
  • Chemical Recycling: aka "advancing recycling," a process of using chemicals to breakdown plastics that many fossil fuel companies list as as solutions in their "net zero targets," but in actuality is a cost-prohibitive, and carbon-intensive process. But that's not stopping fossil fuel and corporations from pumping millions into the technology to make it look like they're trying to solve the climate crisis.

The plastics recycling lie is especially frustrating, because recycling works when it comes to aluminum and glass. Recycled aluminum saves produces 95% of the energy to produce new aluminum. While the U.S. is terrible at recycling glass, Germany and Switzerland both have recycle about 90% of their glass.

Waste Colonialism: Outsourcing Our Problems

And what happens when that waste accumulates, but corporations don't want to tip off the public? Well they outsource the problem!

โ€œExporting these models to other places and then blaming the local people for not properly managing colonial sinks is colonialism.โ€ - Max Liboiron

The majority of plastic waste now is outsourced to African or Asian countries who don't have the resources to take on the waste. I highly recommend reading more about this in 'Plastic Unlimited' by Alice Mah. It's a lesson in modern day colonialism and how corporations have become the leading driver of colonialism in today's world.

The logic is a tale as old as time, Western and wealthier countries ban plastic waste, forcing the waste onto countries who have been disinvested because of colonialism, who then don't have the support to properly dispose of the waste, and then it comes full circle when the corporations and Western governments blame these countries for not disposing of the waste. Many corporations will even tout the benefits as a "win-win" scenario. In their view, Global South countries "benefit" because they get paid for the waste. It's a "enjoy your scraps" kind of argument. It's not a "win-win" if their beaches and wildlife are covered a problem they didn't create.

We have to stop outsourcing our problems and hold corporations accountable at the source. By talking about recycling as a solution to the plastic crisis, corporations and fossil fuel companies are able to hide behind scapegoats to obscure their role in the rising crisis. We can't let them. Next week, we will get into microplastics. ๐Ÿค“ It's been so fascinating to learn!

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Getting to the roots - evaluating the news with a social change lens
  • ๐Ÿ“š New Database Tracking Threats & Harassment Against Local Officials - In a first of its kind, the Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) has created an event-level dataset to evaluate and track the rise in elected officials being intimidated and threatened.
    • ๐Ÿค“ The Root ๐ŸŒฑ - The report shows that the issue is a national problem and doxing and death threats are becoming normalized. This feels very reminiscent of the tactics during Reconstruction when Black men were gaining electoral power and joining state legislatures. Imagine the progressive electoral power we would have today had white supremacists not used violence to remove Black voting power. It's a reminder that our actions now impact future voting power.
  • ๐Ÿ“š 81% of Americans Donโ€™t Want to Regulate Abortion - The new Axios/Ipsos poll is another crystal clear message to the GOP that the public does not want your creepy abortion regulations. This coincides with Arizonaโ€™s 1865 abortion law which went into effect last week thanks to the state's GOP Supreme Court.
    • ๐Ÿค“ The Root ๐ŸŒฑ - While this does not come as a surprise that the GOPโ€™s stance is horribly outdated, it is on us to be unapologetic about peopleโ€™s bodily autonomy. The 1865 ban is another reminder that the GOP wonโ€™t stop until we send a clear message and send them packing in November. Abortion news will stay wild and we have not heard the last of our friend Comstock. & elections matter! Arizona is a key swing state that we can win.
  • ๐Ÿ“ธ The Toxic Patriarchy Behind the Trad Wife Trend - Have you seen the trad wife trend on TikTok? A beautiful, well-dressed white woman giving a behind the scenes view of her idyllic life. Itโ€™s taken off on the socials because the 1950s housewife aesthetic is an illusion.
    • ๐Ÿค“ The Root ๐ŸŒฑ - Think pieces are coming out about the trend and most are missing the point of it. I love @carolinejsumlin IG post on this. She understands women who want that lifestyle, but points out what is in front of the camera and whatโ€™s not and how racism and patriarchy play a role.
getting to the roots - navigating tech, media, and communications

Have You Recycled Your Content?

Speaking of recycling, how often do you use recycled content? In the tech age of 2024, most organizations and activists are producing a lot of content all the time. It's easy for us to get caught up in the fast-paced noise of social media and post and forget about our content. But that content can be valuable again!

  • Is there relevant content from a seasonable event or anniversary last year that could be repurposed? (Earth Day is coming up, what did you do last year?)
  • How many views did your big promotion get? Does it make sense to reshare the same post a few days later to extend its reach?
  • What about long-form content? You likely worked hard on it. How many times have you promoted it?
  • Is there more content that can be shared after an event? What content did you create for the event that could be reshared?

let's grow together - reflections, ideas, and curiosities of the week

๐Ÿฅ๐ŸŒท Spring is a reminder to stop and smell the flowers once in a while. Find our latest videos on our ๐ŸŽฌ Quick Bites page.


The spring is a reminder for slowness ๐ŸŒท๐Ÿฅ

โ™ฌ original sound - Sam @ Roots of Change - Sam @ Roots of Change

And that's a wrap on this weekโ€™s newsletter! We hope you found this helpful in your work. Forward this to a friend and help democratize communications! If you have any topics you want covered or have any questions, please reach out and let me know.

In Solidarity,
Sam Chavez
Roots of Change Founder

About the roots of change agency โ€” Navigating heart-first activism & storytelling. We explore the ๐ŸŒฑ roots of our world to support organizations and activists ๐Ÿฅต avoid burnout and ๐Ÿ“š tell empathetic stories that cultivate connections that ๐ŸŒ empower โœŠ๐Ÿฝ social change.
๐ŸŒฑ๐ŸŒ The Climate Crisis๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐Ÿ‘งโ€๐Ÿ‘ฆ for activists & heart-first humans ๐ŸŒฑ๐Ÿ—ผ๐Ÿ—ž: Newsletter๐ŸŒฑ๐Ÿค‘ Economics & Capitalism

Sam Chavez

Sam is a writer, strategist, and curious human. She founded the roots of change agency in 2020. Sam is a queer, white, LatinX activist whoโ€™s passionate about a livable planet & equitable societies.


Navigating heart-first activism & storytelling. We explore the ๐ŸŒฑ roots of our world to support communicators, organizations, and activists ๐Ÿฅต to avoid burnout and ๐Ÿ“š tell empathetic stories that cultivate connections that ๐ŸŒ empower โœŠ๐Ÿฝ social change.

Learn more about the Roots of Change Agency.