News cycles tell us that thousands of tonnes of Canadian paper gets shipped all the way to India every month, our carefully rinsed wine bottles end up in landfills and metal-recycling plants often catch fire. Though we might get a feeling of satisfaction from tossing packaging into the recycling bin rather than the garbage, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain our fuzzy feelings about this supposedly green action. And there’s one material in particular that takes the single-use-induced anxiety cake: plastic. Since the 1950s, humans have generated 8.3 billion tonnes of the fossil-fuel-based stuff, and, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it turns out that only 9 percent of it has been recycled.

This low rate is partially because there are so many different types of plastic and most of them can’t be mixed together. Even just figuring out what can and can’t go into the blue bin is confusing for the best of us; if you’ve ever paid attention to the number in the arrow recycling logo to determine whether your system accepts that particular item, you’re familiar with this uncertainty. If, instead, you toss plastic into the blue bin without considering what actually happens to it, that’s part of the issue too. This is what Cher Mereweather, managing director of the cross-industry-collaboration platform Canada Plastics Pact, calls “wish-cycling.” Also, plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it’s too degraded for reuse and becomes toxic.

The Canada Plastics Pact aims to build a circular economy for these materials and wants to push companies to move away from using them, establish consistency in the resins used in different plastics (so they can be recycled together) and unify systems across the country. “The most powerful part of the pact is [that we] convene and have conversations [with people from] across the plastics value chain, from the raw-material-input suppliers to the major brand owners, retailers, collectors and sorters,” says Mereweather of the partners who have signed on to achieve the Canada Plastics Pact’s primary targets, including mega brands like Coca-Cola Canada, Nestlé and Kraft Heinz.

There is a lot of optimism in the pact’s messaging, which echoes similar agreements, including the UN Plastics Treaty. However, any plan that talks about helping the environment while also upholding recycling needs to be put under a microscope. A little searching beyond the pact’s online road map shows that its aforementioned partners have stakeholders like BlackRock, widely known as a huge investor in fossil fuel companies. That connection should get our consumer spidey senses tingling. This industry has defined the economy since coal started being used to generate electricity in the 1880s, and it’s not planning on disappearing, according to Myra Hird, author of Canada’s Waste Flow and a sociology professor at Queen’s University’s School of Environmental Studies.

As the world tries to move toward electric cars and renewable energies, fossil-fuel companies have found a loophole that helps them appear greener in the manufacturing of plastics. “If you look globally, all of the biggest oil-and-gas companies—in China, Russia, the United States—are investing billions of dollars in plastics recycling,” says Hird. Those investments tell us that these companies want us to keep seeing our recycling bins as an environmentally friendly place rather than one that allows fossil fuels to keep thriving. That’s because recycled plastics usually contain virgin resin (as opposed to recycled resin), which comes from fossil fuels. These companies love our individual green devotion since it takes the attention away from their responsibility as packagers and manufacturers. “It’s a win for them because it makes it look as though they’re doing something good for the environment,” says Hird. “At the same time, they’re transferring the cost to consumers and profiting from fossil-fuel extraction.”

The truth about pollution issues within our capitalist model is that they’re always governed by dollars and cents rather than common sense. Recycling centres only process a material if there’s a market for it or its components. (One example is polyethylene terephthalate, which is used in many products, from clothing to single-use soda bottles.) So, more often than not, what you’re optimistically tossing into that bin ends up in a landfill after long truck rides to and from a sorting centre, racking up carbon emissions with every stop. And that tally doesn’t even take into account the toxic waste that recycling generates. “It’s easy for us to get our waste out of sight and out of mind—much easier than it is in tiny countries in Europe,” says Hird. “When your whole country is smaller than Prince Edward Island, it’s more difficult.” Sometimes, the final resting place for this waste is a dump as far away as, say, the Philippines, a country that generates 2.7 million tonnes of its own plastic annually. (And an estimated 20 percent of that ends up in the ocean.)

Companies that make huge profits with single-use goods easily adapt and find ways to keep consumers’ recycling-induced fuzzy feels going—and they’ve figured out that they can act like going green is the colour of environmental friendliness rather than greed. Take Coca-Cola’s 2023 release of recycled bottles in Canada: The classic red-and-white label is now greenwashed with a leafy strip that announces it’s made from recycled plastic. Meanwhile, one of its main stakeholders, Berkshire Hathaway, is Occidental Petroleum’s biggest shareholder.

Recycling also isn’t exclusively a climate-change issue. A 2023 Greenpeace report details how recycled plastics contain higher concentrations of toxic chemicals, which only further endanger the environment’s health as well as our own. And a 2022 Dutch study found the presence of microplastics—minuscule fragments that are created as plastic degrades—in humans for the first time, discovering that they showed up in almost 80 percent of tested bloodstreams, and their effects are still unknown.

It’s becoming harder to ignore the fact that it’s difficult to make these materials part of a circular economy; the endgame of sustainability efforts should be that we use products and materials for as long as possible. One thing we need to do to ingrain sustainability and circularity in our consumption habits is to stop holding ourselves personally responsible for plastic in the environment and start putting the blame on its sources. We need more bans that hold industries accountable for the materials they pump into our lives that end up in garbage heaps, breaking down into ever-smaller bits for a thousand years.

Canada’s federal ban on select items like single-use takeout containers was a good place to start, even though its details and what types of plastics it includes is still being debated in court. Hird agrees that it could be a step in the right direction in that it’s a stepping stone to larger, more impactful plastic bans. Takeout plastics (including straws and cutlery) only account for about 3 percent of the country’s plastic waste, so we need to keep tackling more widespread packaging to actually turn the tide.

According to Hird, hurting industries’ bottom lines is the only way we’ll see any substantial change in the amount of plastic that floods our communities. Companies need to be held accountable for the waste they produce by paying for its end-of-life disposal—only then will they start producing more responsible packaging. In terms of personal action, she says, the main thing we can do is reduce our consumption—we’ve put far too much emphasis on recycling, which should be our last resort. As Hird points out, reducing is a wonderful option that’s totally free. As part of the global elite, Canadians make up 17 percent of over-producers and over-consumers.

Pressuring our governments to make phasing out plastics—rather than just phasing them down—a top priority is long overdue, and their actions should guide our decisions at the ballot box. Hird reminds us that there are already other models our leaders can use for guidance, like France’s more ambitious plan to ban plastic packaging by 2040. “We’re not working from scratch here, but we’re really behind in Canada,” she says. “There are countries that are way ahead of us.” And this has to change.