What's Wrong with Plastic Recycling?
In the U.S., about 76 percent of plastic garbage goes into landfills, where it eventually breaks down into microplastics that contaminate the environment and potentially release problematic chemicals. An estimated 16 percent more is burned at very high temperatures, which produces greenhouse gases both during the incineration process and when those fossil fuels are used. An additional 1 percent of that total ends up littering our oceans, where sea life feeds and chokes on it, it breaks down into microplastics that end up in seafood, and it spreads even to the depths of the ocean floor.
Why isn’t more plastic recycled? Most plastic is less recyclable than people think. The very idea that recycling makes plastic use acceptable comes from plastics manufacturers. The reason the public thinks recycling is the answer is that the plastic industry has spent 30 years on multimillion-dollar campaigns saying that, but that is absolutely the wrong message. The message should have been: Don’t use so much plastic.
Most products are composed of mixtures of different plastics and chemicals, which can make recycling impossible. What’s more, these products are often covered with food waste that can further complicate the process. Even the two recycling codes considered most recyclable, 1 and 2, are “downcycled” most of the time, which means they’re turned into lower-quality products that will end up in a landfill because those materials can’t be recycled again. Big brands often use cheaper new plastic instead of recycled plastic.
Today, the percentage of what’s recycled is going down. Much of what’s collected now is unlikely to be recycled because in 2018, China, where most of the world’s plastic was sent to be recycled, stopped accepting it from other countries.
A Finger in the Dam
There are more programs aimed at reducing the avalanche. On March 1, New York state enacted a ban on many of the single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and shops—an effort to cut back on the estimated 23 billion plastic bags New Yorkers use yearly, after bans in seven other states and a number of cities.
Yet while efforts like these are laudable, they aren’t enough to overtake the reality that companies keep pumping out more and more plastic. Recycling doesn’t work if companies keep making more plastic—they need to make less of it in the first place. We can’t recycle our way out of the problem. The only solution is reducing the use of plastic.