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For decades, the plastic industry has perpetuated the myth that plastics are recyclable. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most plastics aren’t recyclable and no amount of investment in recycling programs – or supposedly new “recycling” technologies – will change that. The plastics that are recyclable, at least in theory, release huge quantities of microplastics into the environment. And the new plastic products created from those recycled plastics? They’re full of toxic chemicals. The truth is plastic recycling is a lie designed to distract us from what we really need to do – turn off the plastics tap once and for all.
Plastic Recycling Isn’t Working and That’s Not Going to Change
It’s no secret that plastic recycling is an abysmal failure. The United States recycles plastic at a dismal rate of 5%-6% annually. For years, the companies producing plastics have blamed everyone but themselves. They claim careless consumers who litter and don’t recycle are responsible. But that’s a lie. Most plastic was never meant to be recycled, and it never will.
Unlike other materials like glass, paper, cardboard, or aluminum, there are thousands of different types of plastics, each with unique characteristics, chemicals, additives, and colorants. This makes it impossible to sort plastics into separate streams for processing. It’s why in most communities, you can put a plastic water bottle into your recycling bin, but not plastic “clamshells” (think of those plastic containers that hold food products like spinach, salads, and berries). Even though both are the same type of plastic, polyethylene terephthalate – more commonly known as PET or Plastic #1.
Another problem with recycling? The economics. Collecting, sorting, transporting, and reprocessing plastic is extremely expensive. Because of this, recycled plastic costs more than new plastics. Manufacturing new plastics, unfortunately, only gets cheaper as the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries reap financial handouts and continue to push for massive expansions across the country.
Efforts to Promote a “New Wave” of Plastic Recycling Are Just Distractions
To mask the fact that most plastics aren’t recyclable, large companies and the petrochemical industry are promoting so-called advanced recycling and niche recycling programs. Neither of which are real solutions.
Advanced recycling – the process where high-heat or chemicals break down plastic waste into fuels, chemicals, waxes, lubricants, and intermediaries – is a colossal failure, just like mechanical (or traditional) plastic recycling. Only 1 – 14% of the plastic processed through so-called “advanced recycling” technologies is used to manufacture new plastic. The rest is burned. The environmental and economic impacts of advanced recycling are 10 to 100 times worse than making new plastics. Which says a lot given how toxic and climate-damaging manufacturing new plastics is.
Niche recycling programs that claim to collect and manage “hard-to-recycle” plastics also aren’t real solutions. They always turn out to be scams. Take store drop off programs for single-use plastic bags. In response to single-use plastic bag bans, the plastic industry rolled out a nationwide plastic bag recycling program at retail stores across the country. But, it’s all for show. Virtually none of the plastic bags are actually recycled.
Investigative journalists placed dozens of trackers in bundles of plastic bags and dropped them off at stores across the country for recycling. After months, half the trackers wound up at landfills or incinerators; seven at transfer stations that don’t recycle or sort plastic bags, and six remained at the stores where they were dropped off. Three trackers wound up thousands of miles away in countries known to be struggling with plastic waste exports from the U.S.
The Small Fraction of Plastic That Can Actually Be Recycled Is a Toxic Nightmare
While some plastics can be recycled, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Plastic recycling can release huge quantities of microplastics. Research at a plastic recycling facility in the United Kingdom found that microplastics released in the wastewater amounted to 6% of all the plastic processed. And that’s after a filter was installed. The results also found high levels of microplastics in the air around the recycling facility.
These invisible specks of plastic are everywhere. And recycling plastic only makes it worse. As microplastics spread throughout the environment, the toxic chemicals found in all plastics leak out. If that weren’t bad enough, evidence shows that microplastics don’t just leach nasty chemicals, they attract them – becoming vectors for other chemicals in the environment.
But microplastics aren’t the only problem. Making plastic comes with lots of toxic chemicals and additives, which don’t disappear during recycling. In fact, recycled plastics often contain higher levels of these toxic chemicals and additives. Worse, unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert. Instead, they can absorb the chemicals they contain. So, a plastic bottle that once held bleach or pesticides will likely absorb those chemicals.
Real Solutions Must Acknowledge that Plastic Recycling is a Toxic Myth
Despite the stark realities surrounding plastic recycling, the plastic industry is continuing to perpetuate the myth that plastics are recyclable. Why? Because if they admit the truth – that plastic recycling is a toxic nightmare – then they must admit that there’s only one real solution: To turn off the tap on plastic once and for all.
Americans produce more plastic waste each year than residents of any other country – almost five hundred pounds per person. The odds are high that every piece of plastic you interact with – a plastic bottle, a single-use bag, a takeout container, or other packaging – will end up in a landfill, an incinerator, or the environment. The only way to ensure that doesn’t happen? Eliminating all unnecessary single-use plastic and plastic packaging in the first place.
We have lived without unnecessary plastic before, and we can do it again. Glass, paper, cardboard, and aluminum are all highly recyclable and significantly more sustainable than plastics. Much of our time and effort on recycling is spent addressing plastics. If we eliminate plastics, we can focus on the materials that are truly recyclable, while also transitioning away from single-use products and packaging. Let’s put an end to our throw-away economy, which treats people and our planet as disposable.
Turning the Tide on Plastic
Of course, turning off the tap isn’t going to be easy. Not only is the plastic industry a subsidiary of the fossil-fuel industry, but it’s also highly connected to some of the largest consumer good companies in the world. And it’s fighting hard to keep us hooked on plastics. To industry giants, the bottom line means more than our health and our environment. We also face practical hurdles. To replace all this single-use plastic we need new laws and systems.
But we can do this. More and more states are passing legislation banning single-use plastic bags, straws, takeout containers, and other polluting items. New laws are being considered that will hold companies accountable for the plastic waste they create. Laws that will not only force companies to eliminate single-use plastic packaging, but also invest in reuse systems.
Just Zero is at the front of these efforts. But we can’t do it alone. We need people in every state fighting for change. Only together can we turn the tide on the plastic waste crisis.