The Myth of Plastic Recycling
Wouldn’t it be nice if the plastic items we place on the curb for recycling were actually recycled? That the plastic milk jug we placed in the recycling bin this morning will be reprocessed into a new milk jug? That the plastic water bottles we rely on to hydrate ourselves will be repurposed into new plastic water bottles? That the containers in which we purchase yogurt, sour cream, body care products and vitamins will appear once again on the grocery store shelves?
If this were true, we could purchase products packaged in plastic in good conscience knowing that the plastic we recycle today will have a new life as another useful recyclable plastic container. Sadly, that is not the case.
“Recycle” is a tricky word when it comes to plastic because it doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. It sounds like a container is reprocessed into a new container of the same type. But that is not what happens with plastic. Recycling plastic results in a poorer quality compound, so most plastics are “downcycled” into a product that cannot be further recycled such as clothing, park benches, and plastic “lumber.” Because a “downcycled” item cannot be recycled, plastic eventually ends up in a landfill or the environment.
Are you surprised? Clever marketing by the plastics industry has led the public to believe that the chasing arrows symbol on a plastic container ensures that the item is recyclable, so most people feel they are doing something good for the planet by recycling their plastic waste. Actually, the number inside the chasing arrows symbol merely identifies what polymer or plastic resin is used to produce the container. It does not mean it is recyclable.
It gets worse! Despite the proliferation of community recycling programs, the Environmental Protection Agency states that in 2018 less than 9% of the 35.7 million tons of plastic produced in the United States was actually recycled. Because recycled plastic is of poorer quality than virgin plastic, the market for it is limited. It used to be that recycling facilities could sell the plastic they acquired at a fairly good price. The reality today is that they often have to pay to have the plastic taken away. When there are no buyers for plastic, the items that you carefully wash and place for recycling may end up in a landfill because the recycling company does not have the warehouse space to stockpile these items while waiting for a better market.
For many years, China accepted plastic waste from the United States for recycling. It made sense to fill the container ships with plastic waste once they had delivered goods to the U.S. rather than return to China empty. However, in 2018 China stopped accepting all but the highest quality plastic waste. Their reasons were the sheer volume of plastic waste that comes from the United States and other countries, the fact that the plastic was often contaminated and therefore unusable due to inadequate sorting and cleaning, and the poor market. Plastic that cannot be sold ends up in a landfill or is dumped into canyons, rivers or the ocean in areas without strict environmental standards. More recently plastic waste is being sent to other Asian countries that are not equipped to process the waste or dispose of it in an environmentally sustainable fashion.
For all intents and purposes, plastic is not recyclable. The good news is that there are materials that can be recycled infinitely. They are aluminum, metals and glass. Not only is it important to recycle these items to keep them out of landfills and the environment, they are your best choice when purchasing products in containers. So, ditch your plastic water bottles in favor of a stainless-steel container. Save your leftovers in glass storage containers. And remember to trade in your plastic shopping bags for a cloth shopping bag that will serve you for years.