Americans support recycling. U.S. too. But while some materials can be effectively recycled and safely made from recycled content, plastics cannot. Recycling plastic does not work and will never work. The United States in 2021 had a dismal recycling rate of about 5% for post-consumer plastic waste, compared to a peak of 9.5% in 2014, when the United States exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China and counted them as recycled, even though a large part was not.
Recycling in general can be an effective way to recover natural material resources. The high rate of paper recycling in the United States, 68%, proves it. The problem with plastic recycling is not in the concept or the process, but in the material itself.
The first problem is that there are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics. They all contain different chemical additives and dyes that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of plastic pieces into separate types for processing. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles cannot be recycled with PET#1 shells, which are another PET#1 material, and green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with transparent PET#1 bottles (that’s why South Korea banned colored PET#1 bottles.) High density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low density polyethylene (LDPE# 4), polypropylene (PP#5) and polystyrene (PS#6) must all be separated for recycling.
A single fast food meal can involve many different types of single-use plastic, including PET #1, HDPE #2, LDPE #4, PP #5 and PS cups, lids, shells, trays, bags and cutlery #6 , which cannot be recycled together. This is one of the many reasons why plastic fast food items cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the United States.
Another problem is that reprocessing plastic waste, when possible, is wasteful. Plastic is flammable, and the risk of fire at plastic recycling facilities affects nearby communities, many of which are located in low-income communities or communities of color.
Unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert. Plastic products can contain toxic additives and absorb chemicals, and are usually collected in curbside bins filled with potentially hazardous materials such as plastic pesticide containers. According to a report published by the Canadian government, the toxicity risks of recycled plastic prevent “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging.
Another problem is that recycling plastic is simply not economical. Recycled plastic is more expensive than new plastic because collecting, sorting, transporting and reprocessing plastic waste is prohibitively expensive. The petrochemical industry is growing rapidly, which will further reduce the cost of new plastic.
Despite this brutal failure, the plastics industry has waged a decades-long campaign to perpetuate the myth that the material is recyclable. This campaign recalls the efforts of the tobacco industry to convince smokers that filtered cigarettes are healthier than unfiltered cigarettes.
Conventional mechanical recycling, in which plastic waste is crushed and melted down, has been around for many decades. Today, the plastics industry touts the benefits of so-called chemical recycling – in which waste plastics are broken down using high heat or multiple chemicals and turned into low-quality fossil fuel.
In 2018, Dow Chemical claimed that the Renewlogy chemical recycling plant in Salt Lake City was able to reprocess Boise, Idaho’s mixed plastic waste from households through the “Hefty EnergyBag” program and turn it into diesel fuel. . As Reuters revealed in a 2021 investigation, however, all different types of plastic waste have contaminated the pyrolysis process. Today, Boise burns its mixed plastic waste in cement kilns, resulting in climate-warming carbon emissions. This well-documented Renewlogy failure hasn’t stopped the plastics industry from continuing to claim that chemical recycling works for “mixed plastics”.
Chemical recycling is not viable. It has failed and will continue to fail for the same down-to-earth, real-world reasons that conventional mechanical recycling of plastics has consistently failed. Worse still, its toxic emissions could cause further damage to our environment, our climate and our health.
We do not plead for despair. Completely the opposite. We need the facts so that individuals and policy makers can take action. Proven solutions to plastic waste and pollution problems in the United States exist and can be quickly replicated across the country. These solutions include banning single-use plastic bags and non-recyclable single-use plastic catering products, ensuring widespread access to water refill stations, installing dishwashing equipment in schools to allow students to eat food from real dishes rather than single-use dishes. plastics and the shift of Meals on Wheels and other meal delivery programs from disposable items to reusable tableware.
If the plastics industry follows the rules of the tobacco industry, it may never admit the failure of recycling plastics. Although we can’t stop them from trying to trick us, we can pass effective laws to make real progress. Single-use plastic bans reduce waste, save taxpayers money spent on disposal and cleanup, and reduce plastic pollution in the environment.
Consumers can pressure companies to stop filling store shelves with single-use plastics by not buying them and choosing reusable products and products in better packaging instead. And we should all continue to recycle our paper, boxes, cans and glass, because it actually works.