Where Does Your Plastic Actually Go?
Children are taught from an early age to practice the three Rs — reduce, reuse, and recycle — which serve as a framework to cut down the amount of waste produced by consumers. There have been steps taken to instill the importance of environmental management and waste reduction, yet many people are unaware of the reality of where their waste ends up. In fact, only a slim fraction of plastic is recycled, making it an ineffective system in the United States.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, recycling is a continuous three-step cycle that involves collection and processing, manufacturing, and purchasing new products made from recycled materials. Recycling supposedly limits the waste sent to landfills and incinerators and conserves natural resources.
However, studies have shown that approximately 91 percent of plastic is not recycled and ends up as waste in landfills and incinerators or as litter instead. It is projected that there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills by 2050 if these trends continue. From the costly expenditures to false advertising from the nation’s largest oil and gas companies, there are multiple factors as to why this issue remains neglected today.
An investigation launched by NPR and PBS Frontline found that “the industry sold the public on an idea that it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.” Many companies resort to making plastic from scratch because of how inexpensive it is. Different kinds of plastics have to be sorted through multiple applications, which is not a feasible process for most recycling facilities. Some municipalities have also switched to single-stream recycling in which items like aluminum cans, glass bottles, and paper get dumped into the same bin.
“Yes, it can be done,” Ron Liesemer, a Dupont man who overlooked the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, told NPR. “But who’s going to pay for it? Because it goes into too many applications, it goes into too many structures that just would not be practical to recycle.”
The mass production of plastic can be attributed to how it can be downcycled: plastic degrades each time it is reused, making it useful for a few times before becoming unable to be properly recycled.
Consumers can play an active role in holding companies accountable. Companies have been “working overtime to cater to consumers’ growing climate concerns.” California lawmakers approved legislation that would require plastic beverage bottles to contain 15 percent recycled content starting in 2022, periodically increasing rates. This was a result of consumers being deceived into thinking that the arrows indicate recyclability, which increased the demand for PET №1 and HDPE №2 plastic bottles.
“If we’re really honest, any solution will require us to analyze our own consumption to try to understand what we’re consuming and why, and whether there are ways to reduce our individual consumption,” states Shelie Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.
Ever since the “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made” study was released, it has exposed the downfalls and reality of the recycling industry. Although there is positive rhetoric around the concept of recycling, the system has been unsuccessful, exacerbating the current climate crisis.