Where Are We Now with Recycling Plastics?

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The Myths: We don’t need to worry about plastics because they get recycled.

Recycled plastics are melted down and reused for new items.

The History: We got started in recycling with a campaign called, “Recycle Connecticut.” It was accepted by consumers that they had a responsibility to recycle their plastics. This was (and still is) the position of plastic manufacturers, who are gas and oil companies. Their well-advertised campaign slogan said, “People use the plastics, people can recycle them.” The gas and oil manufacturers created public service advertisements which put recycling of the plastics directly in the hands of consumers. They also created the triangular pointing arrows symbol with a number inside which identifies which plastics should be recycled. Consumers quickly caught on.

We placed our No. 1 and 2 plastics into our blue bins, along with our newspapers, cardboard and tin cans. After some time, we were given the large blue barrels we have now and told to put all numbered plastics into them, and Single Stream Recycling was born. The process of single stream recycling means that the various types of recycled materials arrived at recycling facilities mixed together. These disparate materials were poured out onto a conveyor belt but not properly sorted. It was deemed too difficult, dangerous and costly to sort. We now know that the plastics industry never had a recycling plan. Ron Liesemer, a plastics industry executive, admitted in 2002 in the PBS documentary “Plastic Wars” “that the industry had long known that the recycling machinery was not available and recycling was never going to be profitable.” He added, “that by promoting recycling, the industry could improve the image of plastics and sell more.”

For 20 years, China was accepting our plastic waste. They no longer do so. Our plastic waste now goes to landfills in this country. Some plastics are incinerated which releases greenhouse gases and toxins into the atmosphere. Much of what does not get incinerated or buried ends up in the oceans. There is presently a swirling mass of plastic debris, called a “Trash Vortex”, in the Pacific Ocean. Floating between California and Hawaii, this gigantic island of plastic is growing rapidly. On March 23, 2018, ABC News reported that it is now twice the size of Texas. This accumulation, sometimes called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, contained at least 79,000 tons of discarded plastic and covered 617,800 square miles, according to a study published in March 2018 in Scientific Reports, a peer-reviewed online journal. There are four other such trash vortices in the world’s oceans.

By one estimate, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight, in the year 2050.

Meanwhile, the demand for plastics continues to grow. Renewable energy will continue to cut into the oil and gas market. The oil and gas companies will need to make up for their lost revenue by steering more crude oil into plastics manufacturing.

Presently only plastics numbered 1 or 2 are being recycled, and these cannot be recycled again. This represents about 8% of all plastic.

Some may shrug off this world-wide contamination as a necessary side effect of the wonderful convenience plastics offers us. But no one should dismiss the serious health consequences we are experiencing:

1. The incineration of plastics spews into our atmosphere highly carcinogenic dioxins and neurotoxins such as mercury.

 2. The large amount of plastics swirling in the ocean breaks down into microplastic fibers which enter the food chain. When you eat fish, you are eating some plastic.

3. New studies suggest that the fertility of the human species is being significantly impacted in large part by endocrine disrupters from plastics and other materials.

What can be done?

1. Consumers should place in recycling bins only what actually is recyclable.

2. There should be more public awareness of the actual amount of indestructible plastic that is being added to our planet.

3. The plastic manufacturing industries should be required to show data disclosing real environmental and health impacts of their products.

Resources Available to Consumers:

*Blue Earth Compost: will compost your material for you, on their site.

*Repurpose and Upcycle: will inspire you to see what others do in these ways.

*Buy Nothing Project: similar to Freecycle but local: helps you to recycle toys, puzzles, perennials, etc.

Note: These groups can be found on social media.

Link: upstreamsolutions.org/blog/epr-for-packaging-then-and-now

“Plastic Wars” PBS Frontline, (can use PBS Passport or YouTube)

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