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Maybe plastic recycling was always too good to be true. Just toss your single-use items into a bin of a particular color and voilà! They will be reused and repurposed, transformed into something new rather than adding to the planet's burden of landfill waste. Unfortunately, according to an October 2022 report by Greenpeace, that just isn’t happening. Although many consumers carefully heed instructions about how to dispose of plastic, most of it appears to end up in landfills anyway, as recycling facilities don’t have the means to process it.
According to the Greenpeace report, only around 5% of US plastic is recycled – as in, turned into new items. And it seems the plastic industry has no plans to slow down production. So what’s going wrong with recycling? One key challenge is how difficult and expensive it is to sort so many types of plastic, which all have to be melted down separately. Thus, recycling facilities cannot process much of the plastic that consumers throw into their bins, so it goes to landfills instead. In contrast, it is relatively cheap and easy to produce new plastic, so there is little incentive to undertake the complex recycling process.
Greenpeace says that as hard as it is to accept, it may be time to think about other solutions besides traditional recycling, such as refilling and reusing the same containers and finding alternatives to plastic packaging in the first place.
Bailing on the blue bin?
- The plastic industry has hit back at the Greenpeace report and announced that they plan to scale up their recycling initiatives to ensure that all new plastics will soon be able to be recycled. But they have provided little evidence to explain how this will be achieved.
- In 2020, NPR conducted an investigation that discovered that the plastic industry was already aware of the near-impossibility of recycling plastics affordably as early as the 1970s and 1980s.
- The Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastic Economy Initiative sets a recycling rate standard of 30% for an item to be called “recyclable.” Amazingly, no type of plastic has ever been turned into new items at such a rate, even the ubiquitous water and soda bottles. A 2017 report found that only 21% of these bottles were actually made into new things.