The Issue With Plastic Recycling

The plastic manufacturing industry is doing its best to make us feel ok about using plastic packaging. You see that little recycling icon in the bottom of a container, rinse the container, and throw it in your recycling bin. Problem solved and you’re a good person for recycling.

The problem is that only a fraction of that plastic is recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, just 8.7% of all plastic that was discarded in 2018 was recycled. EPA reports that the recycling rate was higher for some plastic products. The recycling rate of PET bottles and jars (the clear bottles) was 29.1%, and the rate for HDPE natural bottles (the white bottles) was 29.3%. Less than 30% is still dismissal considering that the United States generates more plastic waste than any other country in the world, a whopping 42 million tons of it.

So why do we assume that recycling works when less than 10% of all the plastic waste is actually recycled? Because the plastic manufacturing industry has told us that recycling is an easy solution to our plastic waste problem. As long as we dutifully recycle all bottles and packaging we can keep on consuming the same products as before. 

This narrative has turned plastic waste into a consumer rather than a manufacturer issue. It lets the plastic manufactures of the hook and they can keep on producing more while telling us to recycle better. Therefore our individual actions to reduce plastic in our lives are not enough. The plastic manufacturers need to produce less plastic and we also need better recycling programs so that plastic waste can actually be turned into something useful.

Where does the plastic waste actually end up

When plastic waste is not recycled, most of it is landfilled. According to the EPA, approximately 76% of all plastic waste ends up in landfills and that includes a lot of the plastic we put into recycling bins. The rest of the plastic waste, approximately 16%, is combusted with energy recovery. Over time, the landfilled plastic waste breaks down into microplastics that contaminate our environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency graphic shows how the majority of plastic waste is landfilled.

The majority of plastic doesn’t get recycled because plastic is not easy to recycle. Many plastic products are made out of a mixture of chemicals making it harder to isolate a base material that can be recovered and reused. Furthermore, it is cheaper to create new virgin plastic rather than recycle used plastic into something new. 

However, certain types of plastic are easier and more financially profitable to recycle than others. These include the clear bottles and white ones with number 1 or 2 inside the recycling triangle.  In fact, plastic containers with numbers 1 or 2 are the only ones that are consistently recycled. Plastic containers with numbers 3 through 7 are rarely recycled and items with “check locally” label inside the recycling triangle are usually just greenwashing and not recyclable.

Although the plastic manufacturing industry and our broken recycling system are the main reason that most plastic waste ends up in landfills, us consumers bare some responsibility as well. Many well-intended people throw all of their plastic waste in the recycling bin and hope that it gets recycled. This so called wishcycling can cause big problems at the recycling facility making it more difficult to separate the useful material from the waste. As a result, recyclable plastic can end up in landfills and incinerators.

So while you’re trying to reduce plastic in your life, don’t wishcycle. If the plastic product is not recyclable try to reuse it or throw it in the trash, and avoid buying it again in the future.