For decades we have heard the words “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, this has been the solution for the plastic waste problem our world has been facing. National Geographic has promoted Dow’s Recycling for a Change program on their platform which is a program based in São Paulo, Brazil. This program is in São Paulo because plastic waste has become a major problem in Brazil. Dow is stating a claim that their recycling program is the solution to the plastic waste problem in Brazil. This podcast analyzes this claim by asking questions from an environmental geopolitics’ framework, how are the role and meaning of the environment is described and specified, what is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world, and what is the spatial focus of this particular claim? While analyzing this claim it will reconsider the meaning of recycling along with questioning platforms the public has trusted for years.
Have you ever noticed that National Geographic has started to allow advertisements on their platform? Companies are being advertised that you wouldn’t think would be promoted by National Geographic, companies like Dow, who are major plastic producers. Should we continue putting our trust in platforms like National Geographic?
Hi there! My name is Clae Blanck and you’re listening to Is Dow’s Recycling Program the Answer to our Plastic Problem? In this podcast, I will analyze a claim from Dow through National Geographic’s platform.
The claim I will be analyzing is a direct quote from the article, “The Dow initiative, Recycling for a Change, is transforming an underdeveloped, yet crucial, link in Brazil’s waste management chain—waste picker cooperatives.”
This podcast will analyze the plastic waste problem and whether or not recycling is the solution. This claim is about environmental risk because plastic pollution is the environmental risk that Dow is focusing on in this claim.
Plastic doesn’t go away, it stays in the environment for years, plastic breaks down into microplastics but never leaves the environment.
[Plastic bottle being crumpled]
There are three questions in an environmental geopolitics analysis, these questions came from Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s book, Environmental Geopolitics.
These questions are how are the role and meaning of the environment is described and specified, what is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world, and what is the spatial focus of this particular claim?
The first question considers how this claim focuses on particular environmental features.
Let’s take a look at what this claim is focusing on the most, the Recycling for a Change program is based in São Paulo, Brazil, placing the focus on plastic waste in Brazil.
The program also provides jobs to people in Brazil, which is highlighted in the National Geographic article from Susan Daugherty. There are some environmental features that are relevant to the claim but aren’t included. The National Geographic article shows images of the waste pickers working in this program and states, “Waste picker cooperatives in Brazil are responsible for sorting trash and selling it to recycling companies.”
Dow doesn’t state what recycling companies they sell this plastic to. Dow also states, “circular economy model in which plastic waste is recycled and reused, over and over, never reaching the environment.” However, Dow does not explain how they are reusing this plastic and doesn’t provide proof that is- that it never reaches the environment.
After doing research on the recycling process, I discovered just how complex recycling plastic waste is. Research from Carlos Correa and colleagues about the challenges in reducing, explained how most of the waste that Materials Recovery Facilities receive can’t be identified because there’s no clear label.
When they can’t identify these plastics, the plastics are rejected and put into the landfill. The Materials Recovery Facilities is where the waste pickers send these plastics, which Dow failed to mention. Plastics are the most rejected when sorting recyclable materials for these reasons so recycling these plastics is not as easy as Dow claims.
The second question in an environmental geopolitics analysis considers how human activity is described in this claim. Human agency is shown through an economic lens in this claim because being a waste picker in São Paulo provides jobs for the community.
These jobs may not be the highest paying jobs, but this does provide opportunities for the community which Dow promotes through their article with National Geographic.
Dow knows that they are a part of the plastic pollution problem and want to show the public they have a solution. Humans use plastic every day. Almost everything we use involves plastic, and it’s become inescapable. This is another role in human agency but through a social lens, our culture uses plastic for everything, so we feel a sense of guilt about the plastic problem. This claim makes us feel concerned about the environment and makes us want to help. Thus, the idea of recycling is brought in to ease the guilt that weighs on us.
Now let’s see what human activity is not included in the claim, but is still very relevant to the topic.
National Geographic’s article does not show how politics have a role in the plastic waste problem. It’s important to discuss how politics are involved with plastic waste. Research from Anna Barford and Saffy Ahmad about plastics circular economy, talked with workers from Dow.
One of these workers from Dow, Eric Peeters, stated “Where governments can really help is that I think we need to make it easier to basically ship waste around. And waste in a real circular perspective there is no waste but it’s basically the product that comes to the end of its first life. … I think the Basel Convention which has a lot of good intents and purposes, is actually a significant barrier often for us to do the right thing.” The Basel Convention Eric is talking about in this quote, is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations. Meaning this convention is to prevent the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries.
Dow stating this is a barrier to overcome shows how they may not care as much as they say. Sending the- sending waste to less developed countries is not a foreign concept, European countries and the United States use this tactic often.
In this research, they also discuss how Dow can be blocked by certain policies such as plastic bans in certain countries. Countries that have plastic bans are actually finding a real solution to the plastic problem, but plastic corporations don’t want to promote banning plastic because that would mean losing income. Instead, companies like Dow choose to promote recycling so consumers continue to purchase their products, leading to a never-ending plastic waste cycle.
[Bottle being thrown into recycling bin]
The third question in an environmental geopolitics analysis considers what the spatial focus of the claim is.
Plastic is all around us. This is a global issue but for this particular claim it is focused on São Paulo, Brazil. The claim is focused here because São Paulo has a huge issue with plastic. Plastic itself in recycling programs takes up a lot of physical space. The mounds of plastic sit on the land and it doesn’t decompose, it actually just breaks down to microplastics and stays present in the environment indefinitely.
People don’t see where their plastic waste goes, it’s an out of sight out of mind idea, the plastic goes into a recycling bin, and we don’t know what happens after.
Dow is an American multinational corporation so it’s interesting that this article focuses on São Paulo rather than America. The United States consumes a large amount of plastic that is produced and thrown away by Americans. This is where the concept of out of sight, out of mind comes in.
Laura Sullivan from NPR, goes into more detail about companies misleading the public. Companies commercialize recycling to make the public feel guilty about their consumption. The NPR article discusses how commercials began to circulate in the 1990’s, expressing how our plastic waste can have “another life” and telling society how special plastic is but these ads were paid for by the plastic industry, including Dow.
Dow only focusing on São Paulo displays a Malthusian way of thinking, Thomas Malthus argues that there are two preexisting classes in society, the proprietors, and the laborers. He promotes an “Us vs Them” way of thinking that created these two groups of people. Dow is telling the people in São Paulo what to do and how to handle the plastic problem in Brazil. It’s important to understand that the Dow is viewing the consumers as the ones who need to fix this problem, which puts the blame on us rather than on the companies producing the plastic. This concept also comes from Dr. O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitics book.
To continue the focus on São Paulo, waste pickers have become essential to this region. Research from Manuel Rosaldo about how waste pickers have been excluded from inclusive recycling in São Paulo explains how São Paulo is the home to the headquarters of the world’s largest national waste picker movement. And the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks its inclusive recycling policies among the best in Latin America. Waste pickers are estimated to collect nearly 90% of the material that is recycled in Brazil and have helped Brazil achieve a world record 98.2% recovery rate for cans.
This study states that policymakers prioritize private waste firms and abandon support for street waste picker organizations. State officials have created an alliance with major businesses and view these waste pickers as unimportant. This type of work is extremely hazardous and dangerous, but government officials know that these waste pickers have low-income and have no other job opportunities. These workers go unprotected in these working conditions, which is also not stated in Dow’s claim.
I want to include information from the history of National Geographic and how their platform has changed over the years. For many years, National Geographic was a non-profit organization, but that changed in 2015 when National Geographic sold the company into a joint for-profit venture controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. In 2018, Disney began to run National Geographic. Drew Lindsay has provided this information about National Geographic’s status, explaining how the non-profit side was getting less money over the years, leading them to become a for-profit venture. Now that Disney runs National Geographic, the platform is now on different media forms, it’s now more focused on making profit from movies and shows on Disney Plus. Disney still promotes National Geographic as a community of explorers racing to save the planet but is it all just for show? The new ownership of National Geographic is one of the reasons the platform is now promoting plastic producing companies like Dow.
The platform has now become a promotional platform, seeking profit instead of being for the planet. Knowing this information has taught us not to put our trust into major platforms, even though National Geographic has been trusted by the public for years that doesn’t mean we should believe everything they promote.
We have been told for decades that the solution to our plastic problem is to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” but plastic corporations like Dow have only promoted the recycling part of this solution. We have completely skipped over the most important way to solve our plastic problem, which is reducing plastic entirely.
The research I have done over plastic waste has proven that placing policies such as having a plastic ban is the only way we will see results in reducing plastic waste. As a society, we will of course continue to recycle because it makes us feel like we’re making a difference, feel like we are doing our part. If we stopped recycling, it would feel wrong because plastic corporations have placed the idea in our heads that the only solution is recycling.
If you have a plastic bottle, you should absolutely recycle it, but that will not solve our main issue. I did not make this podcast to make you feel bad about recycling, but to inform you on what recycling really means.
We cannot only focus on recycling as a solution to plastic waste, we must also focus on reducing plastic consumption as a whole. We have been trained to recycle by these plastic corporations’ promotions so now we must backtrack to the first part of the original solution, which is to reduce our plastic production entirely.
Once again, I’m Clae Blanck and this has been Is Dow’s Recycling Program the Answer to our Plastic Problem? Thank you for listening, and I want to leave you with a common phrase that I’ve heard repeatedly since I was a kid…
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… It’s worth it!
All sound effects in this podcast were produced by Clae Blanck.
Plastic bottle being crushed and plastic bottle being thrown in recycling bin produced by Clae Blanck.
Correa, C.A., De Oliveira, M.A., Jacinto, C. et al. 2022. “Challenges to reducing post-consumer plastic rejects from the MSW selective collection at two MRFs in São Paulo city, Brazil.” Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management 24: 1140–1155. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10163-022-01387-9
Barford, Anna, and Saffy Rose Ahmad. 2022. “Levers for a Corporate Transition to a Plastics Circular Economy.” Business Strategy and the Environment32(4): 1203–1217. https://doi.org/10.1002/bse.3182.
Daugherty, Susan. 2021. “Recycling for a Change.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/partner-content-brazil-recycling-for-a-change#xd_co_f=NmM5ODgwNWEtYWNkYy00NWE5LWJmNWQtZjliMzllNGNkZGI3~.
Lindsay, Drew. 2022. “The 134-Year-Old Start-Up: National Geographic Society, once a media colossus, hires a fundraiser-in-chief and learns how to be a nonprofit again.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy 34(7): 20+. Gale Academic OneFile https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A704246234/AONE?u=ksstate_ukans&sid=summon&xid=21c9ff3c.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Rosaldo, Manuel. 2022. “Dilemmas of Co-Production: How Street Waste Pickers Became Excluded from Inclusive Recycling in São Paulo.” Latin American Politics and Society 64(2): 67–92. doi:10.1017/lap.2022.6.
Sullivan, Laura. 2020. “How Big Oil Misled the Public into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/897692090/how-big-oil-misled-the-public-into-believing-plastic-would-be-recycled.