End Plastics

America Recycles Day: Is Plastic Recycling the Solution You Think it Is?

Have you ever wondered what happens to your plastic waste when you throw it in the recycling bin? You probably imagine all of your material responsibly processed and turned into material to make into new, sustainable products. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that this is not the truth for the majority of plastic waste. Despite how smart your individual recycling habits are, a very small percentage of the material you recycle is reused the way you think it is.

Plastic waste by the numbers

The amount of material processed by municipal waste services is unimaginably large. Annually, the average American discards about 487 pounds of plastic. For households and small businesses, individual impacts are fairly inconsequential. However, the combined plastic waste from households and industrial processes combined is 35.7 million tons according to EPA data from 2018.

Alright, so we generate a lot of plastic waste, so what’s the problem if we’re able to recycle it all? The issue with plastic recycling is that unprocessed plastic still makes its way into landfills. The same EPA dataset states that 27 million tons of plastic was received by landfills in 2018, which was 18.5 percent of the total waste. This plastic remains in landfills for up to 450 years, releasing microplastics into groundwater reservoirs as it degrades all the while.

With such a large percentage of plastic waste ending up in landfills, it can be easy to point at recycling as the simple answer to all problems. However, there are many issues dealing with corporate plastic waste that make the issue more complicated than that.

Scales and responsibilities

Consumer culture is obsessed with single-use plastic: the simplicity and convenience of cheap, durable packaging has become ubiquitous. The prevalence of plastic seems so ubiquitous with everyday life. Rather than focus on tiny individual contributions, the blame for single-use plastic pollution can be shifted onto a very small number of entities that have the power to make substantial changes for the better.

A Stockholm Environment Institute analysis shows that only 100 companies are behind 90 percent of global single-use plastic production. With so few companies behind so much pollution, meaningful corporate decisions at only a few of them can lead to substantial improvements to the volume of plastic waste entering the environment.

Everyone should be smart about how they discard their waste. On an individual level, taking the time to find the proper recycling receptacles for plastic, metal, and compost is an admirable effort. However, to associate recycling at all levels of society with this simplicity is a misunderstanding of the complexity of corporate waste management.

This is no accident, with many polluting corporations strategically targeting individuals for plastic waste and other climate related issues rather than taking accountability for their own impact. With a focus on individual “carbon footprints” and other cases promoting free market environmentalism, the dialogue becomes muddled and corporate responsibilities become diluted. Consumers need to be more aware of how tiny their contributions are to plastic waste compared to industrial processes.

Should we even recycle plastic?

The insignificance of individual action against plastic pollution begs the question: is plastic recycling even worth the effort? It’s a good start to limit how much single-use plastic products you buy, but that won’t stop other people and businesses from buying them regardless.

Even when you put plastic in a recycling bin, not all of the material gets properly reused. According to a study conducted by a University of Georgia environmental engineer, only 9% of plastic waste that enters recycling facilities globally gets processed properly. Domestically, the issue is even more dire, with only 5% of plastic waste in the United States properly recycled.

Since different chemical processes are required to recycle different types of plastics, the feasibility of recycling centers across the entire country all being able to recycle at the efficiency and scales required is not likely. Since it’s still cheaper to make plastic from new materials than from recycled materials, there’s little financial incentive currently to make the recycling process more efficient.

With such a small percentage of recycled plastic material reentering circulation, the whole process may seem futile. Even at less than 10% efficiency, plastic recycling should be looked at with a “better than nothing” mindset. If nothing else, recycling should be used as a messaging tool, showing everyday people how small their contributions are as compared to massive corporations discarding orders of magnitude more into landfills.

Plastic recycling is not the answer to plastic pollution: it is the call to action for meaningful change on the corporate level.

November 15th is America Recycles Day. EARTHDAY.ORG invites you to End Plastic Pollution by being more aware of unregulated corporate plastic pollution as well as your own recycling habits. Join us in our fight against the prevalence of single-use plastics. By mobilizing a group of informed recyclers, we can make a difference in spreading awareness of this environmental injustice.