John Oliver reveals why recycling plastic doesn’t work the way you think

"A huge amount of the plastic [...] is not really recyclable. And that means that it ends up in landfills, or burned, or in the ocean, where it breaks down into micro-plastics, gets eaten by fish, and can end up inside us."

John Oliver
John Oliver. HBO


John Oliver wants you to think twice about plastic bags.

The HBO host devoted the main segment of “Last Week Tonight” to uncovering the hidden secrets of the plastics industry, and why widespread plastic recycling programs are less environmentally friendly than you think.

Oliver revealed some cold, hard truths about the plastics industry, which has spent millions on public messaging campaigns that suggest recycling plastic allows companies to reuse the materials.

Among the shocking statistics: Less than 9 percent of the plastic ever created in the U.S. has been recycled, more than half of the world’s plastic has been produced since 2005, and at its current production rate, there will be 600 million tons of plastic in the ocean by 2050, at which point plastic would outnumber the number of fish in the ocean.


“The fact is, a huge amount of the plastic surrounding us isn’t recycled because it’s not really recyclable, and that means that it ends up in landfills, or burned, or in the ocean, where it breaks down into micro-plastics, gets eaten by fish, and can end up inside us,” Oliver said. “A recent study even estimated that an average person globally could be ingesting about a credit card’s worth of plastic into their system every week. Which kind of explains Capital One’s new slogan: ‘What’s in your stomach?'”

Additionally, as Oliver explained, many plastics that you’re tossing in your recycling bin can’t actually be recycled, often because the product is built using a blend of plastics. It’s a fact that isn’t made clear by the complex numbered recycling system, which may lead consumers to believe that buying plastic isn’t as harmful for the environment as it really is.


Even though top plastics manufacturers have known that it’s cheaper to produce new plastic than spend the money to recycle it since at least 1974, companies that rely heavily on plastic, like Coca-Cola, have successfully lobbied the government to have the recycling symbol stamped on their products.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, told NPR.

The solution, according to Oliver, must come at a governmental and industry level, which has let consumers believe that it’s solely up to them to recycle plastic to help the environment. But, for those who do want some personal changes, recycling can still be somewhat helpful even though the system is flawed.


“On a personal level, I know this can feel demoralizing, because it can seem that recycling is pointless. But it’s important to know that it’s not,” Oliver said. “We should absolutely keep recycling paper, cardboard, and aluminum — and even recycling plastic, while it may be 90 percent more pointless than you assumed, can still have modest environmental benefits.”

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