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Mercola Natural Health Articles

Recycling Plastic Is Nearly Impossible and Getting Worse

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Recycling is impractical and, according to Greenpeace, most plastics in the recycle bin are going to landfills.1 The report pulled data from Bennington College's Beyond Plastics report2 released May 2022. Researchers from the college revealed that the amount of plastic recycled had dropped to a new low of between 5% and 6% — and that number was likely lower based on lost plastic collected under the pretense of recycling.

They expect this percentage to drop even further as the amount of plastic in production continues to rise. The full picture of plastic recycling has not ever lived up to the promises made by the plastic industry, and likely never will, according to the Beyond Plastics report.

For example, not one type of food service plastics has ever been recyclable according to the legal definition from the FTC Green Guide, despite food companies claiming it is, such as the Starbucks polypropylene strawless cup lids.3

Greenpeace describes the FTC Green Guide requirements in the 2020 report,4 writing that claims plastics can be recycled must be made on the existence of established programs for collection, separation and recovery. Yet, there are no established programs to separate and recover these plastic lids, so the advertising claim violates the FTC requirement.

Recycling Companies Are Greenwashing Consumers

According to NPR,5 the 2022 Greenpeace report found that not even soda bottles — the most prolific item found in recycling bins — meet the threshold set by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastic Economy Initiative for being called recyclable.

The Initiative sets a threshold of a 30% recycling rate to reach that standard. Lisa Ramsden, senior plastic manager for Greenpeace USA spoke with an NPR reporter, saying:6

“More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and without drastic change will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.”

According to NPR, waste management companies say collecting and sorting plastic is expensive. Added to this, there are thousands of different types of plastics that cannot be melted and recycled together. Greenpeace scientists have also discovered that reusing plastic increases its toxicity to the environment and humans.

On the other hand, producing new plastic is cheaper. When one Oregon sanitation company told customers they could only take soda bottles and jugs in their recycling program, consumers became upset. General manager Trent Carter told NPR he wanted to be transparent with their consumers.

“Politically it's easier to just say 'Gosh, we're going to take everything, and we think we can get it recycled,' and then look the other way. That's greenwashing at its best,” he said. The Greenpeace 2022 state of plastic recycling report lists five major reasons why plastic recycling fails.7

1. Collection — Over 33 million people in the U.S. use and dispose of single-use plastics each year. According to Greenpeace, even the recycling industry admits that collection from consumers is a problem.

Greenpeace also notes that volunteer cleanups, often supported by the plastic industry, is more proof that collecting trillions of pieces of plastic waste is nearly impossible. One nonprofit organization, Keep America Beautiful, is funded by Dow and McDonald's, and is famous for volunteer-led cleanups to collect plastic pollution.

Yet, the continued need for these cleanups demonstrates that recycling programs cannot keep plastic out of the environment.

2. Mixed plastic — Even if plastic could be collected effectively, Greenpeace says it is likely a waste of money. This is because mixed plastic waste cannot be recycled concurrently and sorting trillions of pieces to be reprocessed is “functionally impossible” since different plastics have different characteristics, melting points, colorants and chemical additives.

3. Reprocessing creates pollution — During recycling, microplastics are generated and discharged into the environment. Recycling is also toxic to workers in recycling plants.

In 2021, Canada's National Observer reported that when plastic products are broken down or incinerated, toxins are released into the environment, including endocrine disruptors and cancer-causing chemicals. These contaminate the people in the recycling plant and the environment.

4. Toxicity risk — The chemical additives make recycled plastic a high toxicity risk when they are recycled into food-grade packaging. This means plastics in current use for food service cannot be recycled back into food service packaging. Instead, it can only safely be downcycled into a lower-value product or sent to a landfill.

5. Economics — Greenpeace notes that collecting, sorting, transporting, and safely reprocessing plastic waste is exorbitantly expensive. With a hike in diesel fuel, one Midwest recycler reported that transporting the plastic waste to Canada was “two to three times more expensive than it was six months ago.”8

Big Oil Needs Plastic to Fuel Growth

Publicly, the oil and gas industry lobbyists have claimed that 100% of plastic can be recycled by 2040. Yet, they are unable to explain how they will reach that recycling rate. Additionally, an NPR investigative report,9 the gas and oil industry understood as early as the 1970s that recycling plastic was not an economical option.

NPR also reports that oil and plastic industry lobbyists have resisted legislation where consumers are paid to bring their plastic bottles in for recycling, so they are sorted at the source and thus lowering the cost. The reduction in the demand for oil during the COVID-19 pandemic,10 in addition to the push to promote electric vehicles, has meant that the oil industry may never fully return to prepandemic levels.

Although plastics use a relatively small number of petrochemicals for production, experts believe that it may be the largest source of new demand for oil. If this fails, then 2019 was likely the peak of fossil fuel demand. While the world drowns in plastic and microplastic, a Carbon Tracker report11 released in September 2020 argues that plastic is increasingly being scrutinized and regulated and as the public turns against its use, growth in the industry could fall to zero.12

We Have a Dangerous Addiction to Plastic

Although a reduction in plastic industry growth to zero would be a boon for human health and the protection of the environment, it's hard to imagine that the strength of the oil and plastic lobby will not find a loophole through which they can continue to produce environmental toxins that damage wildlife and human health.

According to Environmental Health News,13 "Two-thirds of all plastic ever produced remains in the environment,” which helps explain why tap water, bottled water,14 sea salt15 and a variety of seafood16 all come with a "side order" of microplastic.

And in fact, as you survey your own home, grocery store shelves, and big box stores, it's apparent that our society has an addiction to plastic. BPA and phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in plastics, which are particularly concerning for young children and pregnant women since they interfere with normal physiology and maturation, even in minute amounts.

It's estimated that it can take a plastic bottle 450 years to break down in a marine environment17 and even then, it never fully goes away. It just breaks down into microplastics that persist indefinitely. These tiny pieces migrate up the food chain as they are consumed by fish and other wildlife.

It is extraordinarily challenging to avoid plastic as exposure routes include air,18 dust,19 water, food, food packaging, bottles and any number of household items. Even cashier receipts contain BPA20 that enters your bloodstream through your skin.

Microplastic in 77% of Blood Samples Tested

Another indication that recycling programs for plastic products have not been successful is the data21 released by researchers in the Netherlands that showed microplastic particles in 77% of the blood samples taken from 22 healthy human volunteers. This was the first time that microplastics had been detected in human blood, according to an ecotoxicologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in The Netherlands.22

The researchers described particles that were small enough to be absorbed across cell membranes. The mean concentration in the blood was 1.6 µg/ml, “showing a first measurement of the mass concentration of the polymeric component of plastic in human blood.”23

During testing, the researchers use steel syringe needles and glass tubes so that plastic would not be introduced into the samples. Some samples contained up to three different types of plastic. Past studies have also found microsized plastic particles in human feces, human placental tissue and a disturbing amount of plastic in baby poop.24

Plastic Pollutes Water, Food and Farmland

The vast number of products encased in plastic, in combination with data showing microplastics in human blood, placental tissue and infant feces, demonstrates the considerable failure of the plastic recycling program. Global plastic production doubled from 2000 to 2019, reaching 460 million tons, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.25

It's also necessary to consider thin plastic fibers released from clothing during washing and microbeads found in facial scrubs and toothpaste that travel through the wastewater treatment plants and clog the waterways.

One 2015 study26 estimated there could be as much as 236,000 tons of microbeads filling the oceans. According to another study,27 the average person swallows an estimated 68,415 plastic fibers each year just from the dust landing on their plates during meals. Plastic pollution is also accumulating on farmland. The annual release of plastics28 to land is estimated to be four to 23 times greater than that released to oceans.

According to the researchers, this is “an alarmingly high input,” exceeding the total accumulated burden of 93,000 to 236,000 tons of microplastics present in ocean surface water around the globe.29

Recycling is nearly impossible, and production has not slowed. However, as you take steps to reduce your exposure to plastic, you are also voting with your pocketbook by lowering demand. Consider using reusable bags at the grocery store, bringing your own leftover containers to restaurants, avoiding disposable utensils, storing food in glass containers at home, and opting for nondisposable razors and cloth diapers.




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Regenerative Farmer Will Harris on Regenerative Agriculture

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Will Harris is a regenerative farming pioneer who runs White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. He produces high-quality grass fed products, including beef and other animal products, and is an inspirational example of how to convert from conventional to regenerative agriculture and thrive financially.

Prior to the mid-'90s, Harris ran his farm the way his father and most every other farmer in the country had — "as a very linear, monocultural cattle operation," he said during an episode of "The Joe Rogan Experience," "The factory farm model."1

He now practices what he describes as regenerative agriculture, warning that it's only a matter of time before Big Ag corrupts this term "and takes it away from us." Regenerative agriculture, Harris says, "is a kinder, gentler agriculture … we call it biomimicry, the emulation of nature."2

While it's an imperfect emulation, it helps to restore the natural cycles that have been broken by industrial farming. As noted on the White Oak Pastures webpage, "Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy focus on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more."3

There are major differences in cows raised on grass versus grains. Those fed grass would have a life expectancy of about 20 years, but Harris states that feedlot cows are so unhealthy at slaughter, he doubts they'd live much more than about three years. "You're eating an unnaturally obese creature that would never occur in nature and is slowly dying of the same diseases of a sedentary lifestyle, the obesity that'll eventually kill most of us."4

'Animal Welfare Was the Canary in the Coal Mine'

When Harris was in his 40s, he became increasingly aware of the pitfalls of the industrialized model of farming. "Animal welfare was the canary in the coal mine," he told Rogan.5 He previously believed that "good animal welfare" included keeping the animal well fed and watered, in a comfortable temperature range, and not intentionally inflicting pain and suffering. It's the definition of animal welfare that many still use today.

Harris realized, however, that true animal welfare involves giving the animal an environment where it can express instinctive behavior. "Chickens are meant to scratch and peck. Hogs are meant to root and wallow. Cows are meant to … graze. But in the CAFO confined model, those instinctive behaviors are not an option for them."6

He changed his cattle operations after this realization. He also quit feeding the cattle chicken litter, which is chicken feces — a widely used, cheap protein source in feedlots. "Most of my transition from what I did 25 years ago to what I do today involved just giving up products and techniques," Harris said,7 adding that it's the misapplication of technology that makes agriculture so destructive today. "Reductive science, technology, does not lend itself to living systems."

In terms of the land, agriculture is misusing cultivation, chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides, which lead to unintended and unseen changes. When chemical fertilizers are applied, they lead to noticeable changes in growth, but what you don't see, Harris explained, "is that fertilizer oxidized the carbon, the organic matter, in the ground. It killed the microbes in the soil. It had other negative chemical impacts, but you couldn't see them."8

When chemical fertilizers were first widely used, their long-term destruction to the environment were largely unknown. It's only recently that the importance of soil biology is being recognized.

Downfalls of Industrialized Farming

Before switching to regenerative farming, Harris spent 20 years operating the farm industrially, including using antibiotics and hormone implants to make cows grow faster. But the technologies that industrial agriculture relies on to "improve" food production are destructive.

"Pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMOs, subtherapeutic antibiotics and hormone implants … These technologies result in horrible, unintended consequences that adversely affect our land, water, climate, and livestock," Harris wrote on his blog.9

Further, they've allowed agriculture to become scalable to the point that a limited number of multinational corporations control most of the food supply. A centralized food system benefits no one but those who control it, and puts consumers at risk. Harris explained:10

"The centralization of food production impoverishes our rural communities as it creates an oligopoly. This centralization of food production is also bad for consumers. This system lacks resilience.

When mega-production facilities that are focused on efficiency break down, consumers' access to food can become limited, which causes panic. This state of panic allows multinational companies to increase their profits exponentially. When the driving goal of our food production system is efficiency, as opposed to resiliency, consumers suffer."

Meanwhile, Harris says, the way food and fiber are industrially produced causes farming to be "wastefully abundant and seemingly cheap."11 Rogan asked Harris if there's a way to produce the massive amounts of corn, soy and cotton currently produced regeneratively. Harris responded, "I think it's the wrong question … it's a matter of living off of what we can produce. How many T-shirts [from cotton] do you have to have?"12

Embracing Regenerative Farming for Health

Dr. Mercola and Will Harris
Will Harris and me when I visited his farm in 2016.

Harris' farming methods now represent the opposite of the industrialized approach, demonstrating how you can convert conventionally farmed land into a healthy, thriving farm based on regenerative methods. At White Oak Pastures, they've:13

  • De-commoditized — Instead of relying on commodities, they produce five types of pastured red meats, five types of pastured poultry, pastured eggs and organic vegetables.
  • De-industrialized — Instead of operating as a monoculture that grows one destructive crop, like GE soy, they've created a living ecosystem that includes 10 species of humanely treated animals that live in a symbiotic relationship. All of their land is managed using holistic principles.
  • De-centralized — They were able to break away from the centralized food processing system, building their own abattoirs (slaughterhouses) to retain control of the quality of their products.

The industrialization of agriculture destroyed the land, while "centralizing agriculture impoverished rural America," Harris said.14 "It caused it to be financially irrelevant. It just wasn't needed anymore."

But farming the way Harris does enriches the land and provides jobs for those in the community. "I've got 180 employees. My payroll is $100,000 every Friday in one of the poorest counties in America, and the town has gone from being a ghost town to a becoming a destination."15 Every agricultural county in the U.S. could replicate what Harris is doing to create sustainably grown food and improved communities.

Toward that end, he and his team created the Center for Agricultural Resilience to educate thought leaders on the benefits of building animal, plant and human ecosystems that can nourish communities instead of destroy them.16

Regenerative Farming Restores the Land

Harris tells Rogan that he has the utmost respect for vegans and vegetarians who choose not to eat meat because they oppose eating animals. But he'll give you an ear full if you tell him you won't eat meat because it's destroying the planet. When farming is done regeneratively, it will help to restore the land and even improve the damage done by industrial methods. And animals are an integral, and necessary, part of the restorative process.

"We are sequestering 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent for every pound of grass fed beef we sell. Ironically, the same environmental engineers did an analysis on Impossible Burgers," Harris said. "They're emitting 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent."17

In fact, Impossible Foods, maker of fake meat, plant-based "burgers," claimed they have a better carbon footprint than live animal farms and hired Quantis, a group of scientists and strategists, to prove their point. According to the executive summary, their product reduced environmental impact between 87% and 96% in the categories studied, including land occupation and water consumption.18

This, however, compares fake meat to meat from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are notoriously destructive to the environment and nothing like Harris' farm. Harris commissioned the same analysis by Quantis and published a 33-page study showing comparisons of White Oaks Pastures emissions against conventional beef production.19

While the manufactured fake meat reduced its carbon footprint up to 96% in some categories, White Oaks had a net total emission in the negative numbers as compared to CAFO produced meat.

Further, grass fed beef from White Oak Pastures had a carbon footprint that was 111% lower than a typical U.S. CAFO and its regenerative system effectively captured soil carbon, which offset the majority of emissions related to beef production.20

"The WOP [White Oak Pastures] system effectively captures soil carbon, offsetting a majority of the emissions related to beef production," the report stated. "In the best case, the WOP beef production may have a net positive effect on climate. The results show great potential."21

So in addition to a focus on animal welfare, Harris' regenerative farming methods go beyond sustainable farming to land regeneration. "We believe farming must not only be sustainable, it has to be regenerative to rebuild our soil," White Oak Pastures' website reads.22 At White Oak Pastures:23

  • Holistic planned grazing methods naturally sequester carbon, control erosion and increase organic matter in soil
  • A life cycle assessment found that their farm is storing more carbon in the soil than their grass fed cows emit during their lifetime
  • Former commodity crop land is acquired and regenerated into perennial pasture every year
  • They've partnered with a nearby 2,400-acre solar farm to provide planned livestock grazing and regenerative land management

Where to Find Grass Fed Foods

The majority of meat products sold in the U.S. come from CAFOs, not grass fed farms. To protect the environment and your health, as well as support animal welfare, seek out foods from small farmers using regenerative agriculture practices.

One useful option is to look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo on meat and dairy, which ensures the animals were born and raised on American family farms, fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest, and raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots.24

You can also get to know a local farmer using regenerative methods near you. Regenerative International, incorporated in 2014, built a global network of regenerative farmers and ranchers, with some 400 affiliates in 60 countries. You can find a map of these regenerative farms on RegenerationInternational.org to secure a source of sustainable food near you.




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