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Plastics Recycling Misses the Point. Here's What We Can Try Next

Updated: Feb 4

Plastics Recycling Misses

There's no "silver bullet" for the plastics recycling problem. But here's what could help in the future.

Odds are, the next soda bottle you buy will be on this planet long after you're gone. That can be a jarring thought, particularly if you're someone who recycles.

Recycling a plastic bottle might seem easy: Chuck it in that blue bin and move on with your day. Rest easy knowing that bottle will go on to see multiple incarnations in the future. The problem is, though, there's more to that bottle than meets the eye, which is why it might end up in a landfill instead.

The bottle itself is likely a type of plastic called PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. The label is maybe made of another type of polyethylene, or polyvinyl chloride plastic. Both are recyclable, though not together. If there's an additive color in the bottle, that could send the bottle straight to the dump. And then there's the cap -- to literally top it all off -- possibly made of polypropylene, yet another type of plastic.

The sheer variety of plastics in the world, and the fact that you can't simply melt them down together to make more plastic, is just one illustration of how complicated recycling plastics is. Since 1950, the world has produced more than 9.5 billion tons of plastic, according to a report from Our World in Data. Less than 9% of plastics get recycled, the report also said, leaving the rest to be either discarded or incinerated. Sometimes they're turned into low-grade fossil fuels that environmentalists argue contributes to the production of greenhouse gasses.

You've likely seen your fair share of recycling campaigns or heard about various states charging for plastic shopping bags or coffee shops nixing plastic straws. They might have wondered which container to throw a used takeout box or sheet of bubble wrap. Maybe they've wondered if it's worth figuring out at all.

"Plastic has given recycling a bad name," said Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and the president of Beyond Plastics. "People are understandably confused, because they reach for products that often have the recycling logo on them, when in fact, they never get recycled."

The upshot of a situation where humans are generating more plastic than ever ranges from projections that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight, to the unsettling idea that every person may unknowingly consume about a credit card's worth of plastic every week, thanks to the pervasiveness of microplastics, or the tiny particle of plastics created when larger plastics are produced or broken down.

Still, experts in the field think there's reason to hope.

Enck cited a 2022 poll from Oceana that found 8 in 10 American voters support policies reducing single-use plastic.

"[That's a] pretty strong indicator that the public is ready for change," Enck said.

Recycling our way out

There are plenty of reasons why plastics have been useful over the last more than half century. The Plastics Industry Association's website points out how lightweight polyethylene was used to insulate radar cabling, giving British war planes a weight advantage over the Germans. Plastic helps reduce food waste by keeping food fresh for longer, and it keeps medical devices and equipment free of bacteria and other contaminants.

For companies, manufacturing single-use plastics is cheaper and more convenient than looking for an alternative. It's a benefit for them, surely, but it's also one of the reasons consumption of plastics has exploded the way it has.

One point of frustration for folks like Enck is the way the responsibility for recycling plastics has been placed on individuals over the years, rather than the companies cranking out virgin plastic on a daily basis.

When you order something online, it might arrive in an envelope with recycling logos on it, but the fate of that envelope might depend on whether your local municipality has an adequate program set up or whether you have the time to figure out where to find a store drop-off location and take it there.

"We can't recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis that we're in," said Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the US Plastics Pact, which is a consortium of nonprofits, government agencies, companies, research institutions and the like founded by The Recycling Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund.

Beyond recycling

Despite the despair-inducing images of landfills and plastic mounds in the ocean, experts in the field remain hopeful that there's a future where the plastics situation is more under control.

On an individual level, people can cut their usage of single-use plastics by using refillable water bottles and reusable shopping bags. They can bring their own mugs to the coffee shop and buy products from companies offering reusable packaging.

There's also research being done to improve plastics. Christopher Noble, director of corporate engagement for the Environmental Solutions Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talked about work being done in the realm of polymer engineering to create plastics that can degrade given a certain trigger. Think about plastic shopping bags that break apart when exposed to salt water. For the lifetime of that bag, it does its job holding your groceries from the store, to your car, to your kitchen. But if it ends up in the ocean, it'll dissolve instead of ending up choking a fish.

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