An environmental expert’s strategy for unwrapping our plastic recycling crisis

Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator, has turned her attention towards getting governments to staunch the flow of virgin plastic.
Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator, has turned her attention towards getting governments to staunch the flow of virgin plastic.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Groll
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Judith Enck has been working behind the scenes on plastic for decades. In 2009, US president Barack Obama appointed Enck the administrator of EPA’s Region 2, which covers New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and eight Indian Nations. She served in that position until president Donald Trump took office in 2017. Before that, Enck was the deputy secretary of the environment for New York’s governor, and before that, an advisor to the New York State attorney general. While she was on maternity leave from her job in the late 1980s, she managed to design her own small New York town’s recycling program. At each stage in her career, she watched as plastic waste grew from a trickle to a flood, and as governments failed to enact meaningful laws to address the problem.

Now, she’s working to change that situation—this time, from outside of the government. In January, Enck launched a project at Bennington College in Vermont, where she is now a senior fellow, with the goal of pushing for legislative changes that could end the global plastic pollution crisis. The project, called Beyond Plastics, works with local governments seeking to ban the biggest sources of single-use plastic pollution, or design better policies to manage it. Enck spends a lot of her time trying to explain to government staffers that recycling, despite what we’ve all been raised to believe, is not the solution to the plastic problem.

You’ve called plastic recycling a “monumental failure.” Is there any hope in the concept of recycling, or any way to make it work for us?

In terms of plastics recycling, I urge people to still recycle number 1, number 2, and number 5 plastics, because there is still a market for that. But there are not and never have been markets for all the others. 

This is not a consumer-friendly system, right out of the gate. I find that so many consumers are not aware that you flip the container over and look at the bottom to find the number. So many consumers think, oh, I’ll just keep buying all of this single-use plastic packaging, and I’ll put it in my recycling bin, and everything will be fine. But most plastics in the recycling bin are not recycled. 

Even when markets were stronger, when China was accepting plastics for recycling, the highest plastic recycling rate that US ever got to was 9.5%. The EPA is very late putting their recycling numbers out, but If I would venture an educated guess, I think the number is probably 5% or lower for 2018-2019.  It’s so important to understand this, and look for alternatives to plastic. 

What direct regulation of that industry might actually have an impact? If it’s not recycling, what is it?

I’m going to go cradle-to-grave here on you, from the beginning to the end of the plastic production process. So one thing is we can stop subsidizing the generation of plastic materials. In Pennsylvania, where the new Shell ethane cracker facility is being constructed and is supposed to open next year, that got a huge amount of state subsidies. And then all of the fossil fuels subsidies—particularly for hydrofracking—that should all be counted as economically supporting plastic production. So step one is stop subsidizing fossil fuels, and stop subsidizing the construction of ethane crackers.

There’s such a long list of other things that could happen. The second thing is that the European Union has banned about 11 different plastic items, and I think the United States should do the same. 

Third, one of the most important things we can do to regulate plastic is to put a deposit on beverage containers. That is so important, because it is very effective at reducing litter. You live in New York City?

I do. 

So you’ll rarely see plastic bottles littered in New York City, because people pick them up. And then, when they go into the bottle deposit recycling system, the material is very source-separated and clean. So that material truly does get recycled. Let’s say you buy a bottle of Coke—you’re charged 5 cents extra. When you return the bottle, you get that nickel back. And then Coke is legally responsible to receive that bottle back and recycle it. 

Then there’s mandatory recycled content for packages. Virgin plastic is really cheap, so most companies are not using recycled material, they’re using virgin. So you could have a law that beverage containers should be made by 50% recycled plastic, or 70% recycled plastic.

There are bills introduced across the country in state legislatures that would do that. The states are really picking up the pace on plastics, because the federal government is not effectively dealing with the issue.

What is the federal government getting wrong, right now?

I spent a big part of yesterday opposing a very inadequate bill that’s starting to move through the US Senate, that’s being pushed by the American Chemical Council. It’s called the Save Our Seas Act 2.0. It’s a whole bunch of half-measures. The premise is a little bit of money to the states to cut trash after the fact, and then lots of flowery language about recycling.

The American Chemistry Council is very influential. I met with them a lot because they’re there when I sit in New York City council meetings where they’re trying to pass plastic legislation. They always show up and say, “Don’t ban polystyrene, work with us to recycle it.” [ed. note: polystyrene is a form of plastic best known as the trademarked brand Styrofoam] The polystyrene recycling rate is like .001%. But they throw their weight around, and the Save Our Seas bill has passed through two committees in the Senate.

I’ve been talking to Senate staffers and explaining that plastic recycling [doesn’t work], and they just don’t get it. I think most people would be shocked to hear that. We were all raised to believe recycling is the solution. 

Is there anything you say that seems to break through that assumption?

I always give them the numbers, and they just gasp. Like, “What? We haven’t even achieved a 10% recycling rate for plastic?” No, we have not. 

The problem of plastics begins long before an individual makes a choice at a store. But what, if anything, can individual people do about this?

There’s a lot individuals can do. Here are the easy things: Bring your own reusable bag to the store. Skip the straw. If you go out to eat a lot, bring your own containers for leftovers. And then look in your recycling bin, and see what the largest type of plastic there is in your bin, and see if you can make a change. For instance, I looked into my recycling bin and saw a lot of plastic juice containers. My husband drinks a lot of juice. I keep telling him it’s all sugar, he should stop. But one thing I did is went to the frozen section in the supermarket and started buying concentrated frozen juice. That got rid of all my plastic juice containers.

You can also buy your food in bulk. I go to the Albany Food Coop once a month and bring all my empty glass jars with me, and fill them with pasta and other dry goods.

There’s a lot of plastic in beauty products, like shampoo containers. You can now buy shampoo bars, which come in a tiny little cardboard box that you can recycle. The bars work pretty well. All of this takes some time, but it’s not hard. You just have to be mindful.

But then you do come to the realization that it’s not our fault. There’s a lot of plastic we simply cannot avoid. A walk through any supermarket is kind of a plastic nightmare. We’ve put up on our Beyond Plastics website a model letter that people can send to their grocery stores, that basically says, “I love your store, but I want to see much less plastic packaging. Can you offer products that are not wrapped in plastic?” So there’s individual action, and then you can use your voice as a consumer where you shop. I recently met with a big regional supermarket chain, and told them they were missing a big market. Most plastic-free products have to be ordered online, why not carry them in your store?

We get calls every day from businesses who want to know what are the alternatives. It’s growing.

I understand you designed your own town’s recycling program. What did you learn from that?

I was on maternity leave from my job, so this was 1987 into 1988. Back then did not have nearly as much plastic as we do today. The generation of plastic has been going up and up with every passing year, and that’s because the virgin plastic is so cheap. 

But one thing I learned is that there are so many governments and private waste haulers that tell people to put all their plastics in the recycling bin. And that is just deceptive. It gives people this false illusion that that is all getting recycled, when most of it isn’t.

I recently met with a guy who runs a big county-wide solid waste authority in the Hudson Valley. I said, “I notice you take number 1 through 7 plastic. What are you doing with the stuff that’s not 1, 2 and 5?” He said, “Oh, I just sell it to a waste broker.” And I’m like, “Okay, what does the waste broker do with the plastic?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know.” 

The waste broker is based in New York City. So probably for years, they just exported it all to China. And that’s exactly what China got upset with us about, sending them plastic waste that wasn’t recyclable. 

We were all raised on the phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” We need to remember the first two.

What should people do with the plastic already in their homes?

I don’t know, art projects? [laughter] I regret that I used to refill plastic bottles. I don’t do that anymore, for health reasons, because of the microplastics. If you have a plastic water bottle that gets hot, you’ll have more leaching. I’d leave them in my car on a summer day, and then take a swig of water. I was probably drinking microplastics with that water.

So you should use it for nonfood applications. I don’t think people should worry too much about what’s already in their homes, but they should focus on not adding new plastics. 

What is the one thing people in government need to know when it comes to plastic?

I just want to make sure policymakers have all the information in front of them so they don’t go for false solutions. Plastic recycling is a false solution. Putting a lot of money in cleanups is a false solution. I don’t do litter cleanups anymore, because the litter just keeps coming. We just have to get to the source, and stop making so much plastic.