Updated: Oct 7, 2021
Most of us know by now that plastic isn’t great for the environment, but putting our plastic bottles in the recycling bin at least makes us feel better about it all. But what happens to recycled plastic? Unfortunately, there’s a 91% chance that the plastic will end up in a landfill, burned as a toxic fuel, or make its way to the ocean. Ouch. We know. Here’s how plastics have become a pandemic in America.
The amount of plastic in the world is incomprehensible; 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic — a material that takes over 400 years to decompose — has been generated since the 1970s when plastic was popularized. Over 75% of all plastics have become waste, and of that plastic waste only 9% was recycled.
Some plastics are worse than others.
Need some more mind-blowing statistics? Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, 50% are single-use plastics — like takeout containers and plastic bottles. Some plastics aren’t even recyclable, like straws and Ziploc bags.
PET bottles (1) and HDPE natural bottles (2) are the easiest to recycle, but they are also commonly used in single-use plastic products, which means they are designed to be quickly disposed of.
In 2017, around 30% of type 1 and type 2 plastics were recycled, which we guess could be encouraging. But even when these plastics make it through the recycling process they can only be recycled two to three times before they start losing strength and can no longer be used (so, don’t get too encouraged).
With one million plastic bottles sold a minute, only 7% of new PET bottles contain recyclable material. Companies like Pepsico make demoralizing pledges to increase the recyclability of their packaging by 35% by 2025, but it is hard to see how we can curb the massive global plastic addiction.
What happens to recycled plastic, really?
Greenpeace recently reported that the U.S. only has the capability to recycle type 1 and type 2 plastic. Since the U.S. could only recycle these plastics, it exported types 3-7 to China where they were either burned for toxic fuel or ended up littering China’s countryside and oceans.
In 2016 alone, the U.S. sold and shipped 16 million tons of recycled materials to be processed in China. This all drastically changed in 2018 when China decided that it no longer wanted to be the world’s dump and banned the import of recyclable materials. Now countries around the globe are scrambling to figure out what to do with their waste.
Where does that leave us?
In 2018, the U.S. still managed to export a million metric tons of plastic waste to countries with Poor Waste Management like Mexico, Thailand, and Turkey. Improvements were made in the amount exported from the U.S. in 2019, but that is mostly due to similar bans from countries like India, not because we are actually solving our internal problems of plastic misuse from start to finish.
Since the U.S. can’t export to China, municipalities are left with little choice but to dump it into landfills.
Many municipalities have just stopped recycling programs completely and aren’t accepting certain types of plastics anymore — or are just burning waste they can’t process. With an overflow of plastic and a lack of domestic recycling infrastructure, it is no wonder that the recycling system in America is broken — polluting our land and leaking into our oceans.
So if recycling is a myth, that is the answer?
Since plastic recycling is a myth, what is the answer to the plastic pandemic? It's pretty simple: cut single-use plastics in our lives. Less plastic being produced in the world will take a concerted effort by us consumers, business leaders, and governments to coordinate changes in the way that we think about, use, and regulate plastic. And even if it doesn’t always feel that way, small actions do make big changes if we combine forces. Bring a refillable bottle, choose aluminum over plastic, support an organization like 4Ocean or Surfrider Foundation and join a plastic clean-up day. Or start with reading our blog on How to Turn Plastic Anger into Practical Activism.
Remember: every time we don’t buy a single-use plastic water bottle but choose water in aluminum instead, we vote for something else. Make sure to stay tuned to this channel as well.