Can We Recycle Our Way Out?

Reduce, reuse, recycle. For so many years, we’ve been focusing all too much on the last R recycle. But is the recycling of plastic really the solution to our plastic pollution?

We’ve all seen the articles that show us just how bad plastic is for the environment — The whale that washed ashore with 18 pounds of plastic in his stomach, the turtle with the straw in its nose, the millions of birds that have died from consuming plastic and of course, the microplastic found in our tab and bottled water

Recycling might seem simple at face value. You place it in your blue bin, a recycling truck comes and picks it up every week and takes it to the facility where it will be processed and recycled into a new product.

If only it was that easy… 

The truth is that only 1 out of 4 plastic items that get sent to a recycling facility will actually get “recycled” in the US.

So why is it so hard to recycle plastic?

The Complexity of Recycling Plastic

Not all plastic types can be recycled.

The recycling symbol that most plastic items come marked with can be really misleading. If it has it, it means it can be recycled right? Well, not really. The marking system was implemented in the 90’s to make it easier for recycling facilities to identify the different plastic types, but it does not guarantee that the plastic can be recycled.

The easiest and most commonly accepted plastics at recycling facilities are PETE and HDPE. All other types are less likely to be accepted because of their difficulty to be recycled.

A few facilities will accept more plastics types and are usually located in cities with big recycling centers. Check with your local recycling center if you’re unsure on what they accept.

There are 7 different types of plastic.

#1 PET or PETE – Water bottles, juice bottles

#2 HDPE – Shampoo, plastic bags

#3 PVC or Vinyl – toys, clothing, cooking oil, flooring, credit cards, plumbing

#4 LDPE – Bags, wraps, the coating on coffee cups & milk cartons, food storage

#5 PP – Food containers, baby bottles, diapers

#6 PS -Known as trade name Styrofoam

#7 Other – It could be a mix of a lot of different plastics or polycarbonate which is associated with BPA.

Click here to learn more about each plastic type and their toxicity levels.

Most of the recycled plastic across the globe is (was) sent to China, but with their highly strict contamination rate, a lot of plastic is ending up in the landfill.

With an almost impossible-to-meet contamination standard of 0.5%, a lot of plastic sent to be recycled doesn’t actually make the cut.

It’s not just China’s standards — every facility that processes recycled plastic has a standard contamination rate and if that contamination rate is exceeded, the batch loses a lot of its value. The less contaminated a batch is, the more valuable it becomes and the less likely it will be sent to a landfill. 

The average contamination rate within curbside programs in the US is 25%. A lack of education around plastic is making it more expensive for companies to recycle plastics.

The plastic that does end up being recycled is actually downcycled into a product that cannot be recycled again.

That new recycled product will eventually end up in the landfill and although it was given a second life, it will still contribute to plastic pollution at the end of its second life.

Plastic is not as durable as other materials.

Although plastic will last hundreds of years or maybe forever in its chemical form, it won’t last in its original shape. With time & light, plastic will begin to degrade (not to be confused as biodegrading) into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics.

In less than 200 years, precious historical plastic objects and artworks sitting in museums are beginning to fall apart. More about that here.

Only 9% of the plastic in the entire globe is recycled

Read more about that here.

Related Article: 7 Reasons Why You Should Quit Plastic

5 Ways You Can Help With Plastic Pollution

Focus on reducing rather than recycling

Ultimately, we all make choices each day that have an impact on the environment. You can choose to continue to utilize plastic as you normally do, or you can start minimizing it’s usage today. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Choose products that come in alternative materials

While shopping, look for products that come packaged in aluminum, cardboard or glass. Preferably

Vote with your dollar and support those companies making a difference

More and more companies are now offering plastic-free alternatives!

Be an advocate and lead by example

The best way to inspire the people around you to minimize their plastic usage is not just by informing, but by leading by example. If you’re changing your lifestyle for the better of the planet, it’s very likely they’ll want to do the same & start making small changes in their lifestyle.

Whatever you do, just remember to keep the interaction as positive as possible and be understanding that not everyone wants to change.

Donate to organizations helping fight plastic pollution

Here are a few organizations making a huge difference in plastic pollution

I’m going to be extremely honest, my family and I didn’t start recycling until the beginning of this year. Back then, we were so focused on recycling that we forgot to focus on the most important R, reducing. It would take just a couple of days before the recycling bin was completely full, in many cases with plastic that wasn’t accepted by our recycling facility.

Although recycling is better than not recycling, it’s not the answer. If we all focus a little more on reducing our plastic usage rather than recycling, it will have such a positive impact on fighting plastic pollution. Remember, even the tiniest change in your lifestyle could make a huge difference.


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