John Oliver clears up myths about plastics and recycling

A large pile of plastic bottles and cans (Photo By Epics/Getty Images)
A large pile of plastic bottles and cans (Photo By Epics/Getty Images) /

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver took up an environmentalism cause on Sunday night, examining how plastics are harming the planet and why the solution isn’t as simple as recycling.

Up to this point, season 8 of Last Week Tonight has used its main story to cover social issues. Topics have included working conditions in the meatpacking industry, unemployment, and police raids and how these affect specific groups. Sunday night’s story addressed a problem facing everyone.

The importance of recycling and its benefits for the environment has been taught in elementary classes, promoted through public service announcements, and encouraged by advocacy groups. But as John Oliver explained, there remains a lot of misconceptions about recycling and how much good it does under the practices and policies currently in place.

Beyond the environmental effects, Oliver also looked at how incorrect recycling has resulted in plastics entering the human food supply. Check out the segment below to find out just how much plastic you may be consuming in an average week.

John Oliver exposes the false narrative around plastics recycling

As it turns out, only a small percentage of plastic products can be recycled. But without widespread public knowledge, all sorts of things get recycled (or “wishcycled”) causing more problems than solutions.

It’s this problem that winds up with plastics in the ocean and in our food supply. Oliver reveals that a person consumes as much as a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. It’s a disturbing visual and one that Oliver uses effectively to get his point across.

Oliver traces the issue back to corporations and their ability to control the narrative around recycling. The responsibility has been placed on the consumer rather than the supplier. This sort of manipulation and corporate spin has been discussed in past Last Week Tonight segments.

This strong push to recycle has created a massive amount of waste with landfills causing environmental devastation and public health risks. Oliver calls out the U.S. for not ratifying a global ban on exporting plastic waste from richer countries to poorer ones.

The segment circles back to corporations and how the message of everyone “doing their part” when it comes to recycling is a false narrative. Oliver reveals that upcycling isn’t nearly as common as many are led to believe despite what companies say in ads.

Oliver concludes that the real change has to come from plastic manufacturers. Individuals can make a difference but it is the corporations putting plastic into the world that need to take on more responsibility. Last Week Tonight finishes up by highlighting extended producer responsibility laws as a step in the right direction.

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What did you think of this story from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.