There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion surrounding the recycling system in the United States. And the biggest culprit of all is plastic. Plastic can be found everywhere on Earth – at the bottom of the ocean all the way to the Amazon rainforest. And the problem is only getting worse. With no good method for disposal and a very long decomposition rate (hundreds and sometimes thousands of years) our planet is quickly becoming inundated in the stuff. How did this happen and what do we do about it?
The History of Plastic
The first synthetic plastics were invented in the late 19th century as a substitute for ivory. This was initially an eco-innovation because it prevented the slaughter of wild elephants and replaced other animal-based products. It was a revolutionary discovery and quickly evolved to be used in other everyday items such as insulation and clothing. The plastic revolution really took off after World War II as it provided substitutes for natural resources needed for the war. However, by the 60s and 70s, it started to become apparent that this miraculous material could potentially pose problems for the environment. Once created, it’s difficult to break down and recycle into something new, and due to the rise in single-use products, more and more plastic items from bags to cutlery to food storage started being produced. We’ve now hit crisis levels where mountains of unusable plastic waste is being piled up, sent to landfills, or incinerated instead of recycled.
The Myth about Plastic Recycling
Once the general public became concerned about the plastic waste, questions about it’s sustainability and recyclability began to circulate. Millions of dollars were spent on eco-campaigns by big oil companies to convince the public that plastic could and should be recycled. The 3 arrows indicated an item is recyclable were even printed on many of the plastic bottles, but the symbol, turns out, is meaningless. Only 5% of the plastic produced is actually recycled. The rest is either buried, burned, or piled up in storage facilities or shipped off to 3rd world countries. China stopped buying America’s plastic waste in 2018 once it became apparent that trying to process and recycle it was not only a cost burden, but was creating an environmental catastrophe. Even now, recycling bins are full of plastic bottles that will never be recycled.
What’s the problem?
Of the 7 types of plastic, only the first 2 are actually recyclable, and those two: PET (water bottles, food containers) and HDPE (milk jugs, toys, bags, etc.) require sorting and processing to be recycled. Like much of the recycling system, the cost of transporting, sorting, cleaning, and processing these materials is often more costly than making new materials from scratch. This has caused many recycling centers and processing facilities to close. For many people, like myself, this news is incredibly discouraging. When I learned that not everything I put in the recycling bin gets recycled, I was disheartened, but we can’t give up. There must be some solution.
What should we do?
The current situation looks pretty dismal, but we must continue looking for a solution. Younger generations did not ask for a world inundated in plastic waste, and we must do our part to address this serious issue. Unfortunately, battling the big oil companies seems insurmountable at times, but with enough support and pressure, the general public can make changes happen. Some states have worked to ban single use plastics, but again, battling big oil is incredibly difficult. As an individual, the best thing we can do is avoid single-use plastics (water bottles, plastic bags, cutlery, etc.) and educate the public about the dangers of plastic waste and the lack of infrastructure in our current recycling system. I’ve started looking for reusable options to avoid plastic waste. Zero waste living is becoming a popular topic. But what do we do with all of the plastic currently piled up?
There are some companies currently trying to solve our plastic problem. Precious Plastic is one such organization promoting a community of people passionate about solving the plastic waste crisis. They even have machines and starter kits for anyone who wants to transform plastic into new products. Other companies like Beyond Plastics pressures corporations to stop single-use plastic waste and educates the public about the plastic crisis. There are other companies dedicated to finding a solution to the plastic waste problem, but without pressure from the public and support from the big oil companies that put us in this crisis, we can’t expect to see big changes anytime soon. It take a lot of work and effort and policies to stop this environmental disaster. As individuals, we can work to be informed, educate others, and find alternatives to single-use plastics. Let’s keep finding for greener, cleaner, future!