Plastic is everywhere. There’s no denying that. Unless you’re a hermit living completely off the land, there is no avoiding plastic. Plastic bags and plastic bottles are obvious, but what about your cellphone, laptop, or credit card? It’s all plastic!
Many people are proud of their recycling efforts, and I am as well. We treat recycling as if it is the superhero of waste management. I recycled my plastic bottle so I’m doing my part to save the planet and fight pollution! Well, yes, you may have prevented that bottle from going into the landfill, but the process of recycling that bottle may be more harmful than you would think.
Even when we reduce our personal plastic consumption, there’s no telling how much plastic was used in the production of your plastic free item. I went into a cafe recently and ogled their delicious-looking display of scones. I bought one and asked them to put it into my cotton bag to avoid using their paper bags. As I enjoyed my sweet treat, I watched the cashier replace the scone I bought with an individually plastic wrapped scone. Oh. These came individually wrapped, then taken out to be put on display.
How does recycling even work?
Here is a great infographic that shows the process of recycling different materials.
So why is recycling bad?
Recycling in it of itself is really fantastic. That is, if we didn’t have too much of it. Currently, we are living with a surplus of plastics without the means to recycle them. What we as consumers do for recycling is simple. Sort the paper, plastic, and metals, throw them in their respective bins, and then take the bin out once a week for collection. But what happens after that?
Once your recyclables are out on the street, a giant diesel-fueled, smog-producing truck comes around to pick it up. Then it gets transported, either by truck, barge, train, or plane, to the recycling facility. At these facilities, a lot of energy is used to process these materials. Now these facilities could be anywhere. You might have a municipal recycling facility right in your town or city, or you might be shipping yours to a different country.
In 2018, China announced that they were no longer going to take recyclables from foreign countries. Prior to this announcement, I had no idea we were even shipping off our waste to a different country. This is truly the definition of out of sight out of mind.
Before, recyclables were purchased at a rate that cities could break even at. Now, thanks to this plastic ban, the cost of recycling has skyrocketed. Companies can no longer turn a profit from recycling.
In 2016, it was reported that the United States was exporting about 700,000 tons of plastic to China a year. For decades, rich countries have shipped their plastics to poor Asian countries. China alone took in 45% of the world’s plastic waste imports. Which, since 1992, means they have imported 106 million metric tons of plastic waste!
The effects of this plastic ban is taking its toll on America. All across the country, recycling programs are being suspended due to their inability to process all the recyclables. Plastic, aluminum, and paper, that have been sorted diligently are now headed to the landfill. There is just no market for recyclables anymore, due to the lack of demand and the all-time high costs.
Recently the town of Fort Edward, New York suspended its recycling services after admitting that for months they have been incinerating the collected recyclables. Waste Dive has tracked the effects of the plastic import ban by China for each state.
On a national scale, we’ve increased the amount of plastics being shipped to other Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. But they are not expected to last, considering both Vietnam and Malaysia are already putting halts on imported plastics. Shipping away our plastic is simply no longer a viable solution.
Rich countries like ours need to wake up to this fact and start expanding their own recycling capabilities. Given the amount of plastic waste that is generated annually, the present plastic recycling methods are unsustainable.
Besides the government needing to take big actions in retooling the current recycling systems, one big factor that could affect recycling is production of plastic itself.
If companies could produce and use less plastic, there would be less for us to recycle. If we can lessen the amount of plastic waste we put out on the curb, there would be less that needs to be shipped out and dealt with. This would mean companies need to redesign plastic products while taking into account what happens to those products at the end of their life. Currently, a lot of plastic products are made with mixed plastics, which makes it harder to recycle.
In order to fight plastic pollution, big corporations are the ones who need to make big changes. But their concern is money—so it’s up to us consumers to convince them to make changes. Try petitioning big companies, and writing to smaller ones. In the meantime, try limiting your own plastic waste by adopting zero waste habits and avoiding disposable plastic.