John Oliver explored the increasingly dire problem of plastic pollution and how the plastics industry has misrepresented the possibilities of recycling on Last Week Tonight.
At the top of the segment, Oliver cited a study that claimed that less than nine percent of plastics actually get recycled in the United States, with most of that refuse ending up in landfills or in the environment (there’s so much plastic in the ocean, in fact, that it can break down, fish can eat it, and then people can consume it again). Indeed, the overwhelming majority of plastics aren’t actually recyclable for various reasons — sometimes there’s no use for them, other times it’s cheaper to just make virgin plastic — with Oliver noting that out of the seven numbers you see in the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol, only two appear on products that can be recycled on a regular basis.
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“That is a pretty bad ratio for a group of seven,” Oliver said before cracking: “Ideally, you’d want a little more balance like BTS — there’s not a weak link in that unbreakable chain of heartthrobs. With so many people on stage, you would understand if sometimes Jimin only gave 50 percent, but he doesn’t. He beats up the dance floor every night like he just caught it robbing his house.”
Despite these constraints on recycling, Oliver said the plastics industry has spent decades and millions of dollars pushing a narrative that it’s the consumer’s responsibility to end pollution. Meanwhile, Oliver noted how a company like Coca-Cola, whose products account for an enormous amount of pollution, has continually made loud pledges to use more recycled material in their packaging, only to quietly break those promises over and over again. In 2009, for instance, Coca-Cola said it would source 25% of its plastic from recycled material by 2015; in 2021, that number is just 10%.
Oliver argued that the best way to significantly curb this problem is to implement “extended producer responsibility” laws, which shift responsibility and the cost of collection from the public sector to those producing plastic waste. Oliver also highlighted laws that ban the use of single-use plastics to force the introduction of alternatives. But while some cities have introduced such policies, the plastics industry has successfully lobbied 18 states to implement pre-emptive laws stopping local regulations.
“I guess those states just have a hard-on for plastic bags not seen since that creepy kid from American Beauty,” Oliver cracked. “The kid loved bags.”
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