What Happens to the Plastic You Think You're Recycling

Apr 24, 2014 1:38:00 PM

When we toss our plastic bottle into the recycle container - we feel we have done our part. But what really happens to the recycled plastic - where does it go, and are we really making a difference by doing this?

There are some overwhelming statistics out now about the impact of plastic use on the environment, and about how effective our current recycling efforts really are. The first point to note is this:

Depending on the bin and on the city's recycling system, only 60 to 80 percent of recycling is actually recycled nation-wide. 

What does this mean for the plastics that don't make it into the bin?

Understanding The Recycling Myth

Anytime plastics are collected from curbside bins - it fosters the belief that, similar to aluminum or glass, this material will be converted into new and similar objects.

This is not true for plastic. The best hope for plastics is to become other products like doormats, textiles, plastic lumber, and so on. These newly formed products are still going to end up in the landfill – and do not mitigate the demand for more petroleum products.

This is not recycling. This is called down-cycling. Yet even down-cycling is not happening on any significant scale.

Here in the US, a full 93% of plastics are NOT recovered or placed into recycle bins. These plastics actually go straight to landfills. PET bottles with a redemption or cash value fare better, yet 62% are still NOT recovered. (EPA data 2008)

How Serious Is This Problem?

The statistics are out about how much plastic is still in the environment. Envision a line of plastic bottles going all the way around the planet five times. This is the volume of plastic bottles tossed out every week in the US, just for water.

This means that our plastic pollution issues cannot be solved simply by encouraging us to “recycle”.  We have to realize that we have been perpetuating the myth of plastic recycling. Doing this delays the adoption of truly-effective and sustainable solutions.

What Is Happening To Our Plastic?

Look on the bottom of recyclable plastic objects - you'll find a number. Every kind of plastic has a number from one to seven. When recyclable plastic is delivered to a reclaiming facility, it is divided according to this number. #1 is the plastic used for making soda and water bottles.

Next, the plastic is auto-moved and fed into a grinder. This chops it into little flake-like bits. The flakes get fed into a furnace to be melted down into a polymer. This polymer is used to make new products like lawn furniture, garbage cans or carpets.

How This Relates To Ocean Clean-ups

We now know that hundreds of millions of metric tons of plastic are currently floating in the ocean.  This plastic has fragmented into minute pieces that are scattered throughout the water-column.  

It is not a visible island of plastic trash - it is an ocean-soup thickly made up of tiny shards of plastic. This form makes cleaning this ocean-soup an enormously difficult project, both technically and economically. 

Any cleanup will potentially remove plankton as well as plastics, which is the base of the food chain. Plankton is responsible for capturing half of the CO2 of our atmosphere while generating half of the oxygen needed for us to breathe.

The broadly understood resolution is stopping plastic production altogether. This is why it is essential to support any business that offers bio-friendly plastic replacements.

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We are interested to hear your take on recycling.  Do you do it?  Does the above make you want to make any changes over time in your use of plastic, such as using more reusable containers?

Topics: Sustainability

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