The Truth of Recycling and What It Means for Our Environment

Millions of Americans recycle, but where does the plastic really go?

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Millions of Americans recycle, but where does the plastic really go?

When we recycle things, we often automatically assume that our actions will benefit the environment. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. The term “recycling” has a lot of widespread misconceptions. For one, recycling doesn’t actually cleanly get rid of plastics, or even get rid of plastic at all. 

According to a report from Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, only five percent of “recycled” plastics actually get repurposed. More realistically, plastic waste just gets dumped into a landfill, burned illegally, or shipped off to a foreign country. In 2015, the U.S. reported a 9% recycling rate. However, according to an article published by the Guardian, that seemingly successful number was only due to the U.S. shipping off their plastic waste to China and Hong Kong. These two countries ended up with over half of that 9%, dealing with approximately 1.6 million tons of the plastic that had been “recycled.” In 2020, China refused to take any more plastic from the U.S, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S from continuing to ship waste to poorer countries. 

According to the same report by Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, an estimated 85% of plastics end up in landfills, while the remaining 10% end up incinerated. These statistics are extremely problematic for the environment as well as the local communities living in locations near landfills or incineration facilities. . These sites contain dangerous waste or products from incineration that release toxic chemicals such as methane into the surrounding environment, which increase people’s risk of cancers, respiratory illnesses, immune system problems, and other major health risks. 

The effects of incineration and landfill dumping disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Research from the New School shows that 79% of the 73 U.S. incinerators are near low-income and BIPOC communities. 4.4 million people across the U.S. live within three miles of incinerators. The truth is that it’s expensive to recycle plastic. Manufacturing new plastic is just cheaper and easier. The plastic industry continues to flourish at the expense of less privileged communities.

Another issue that comes with the process of recycling is the transportation that it necessitates. In order for plastics to be recycled, collected plastic waste must be transported to the recycling facilities. According to the Environmental Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, the transportation of plastic to plastic factories emits 12.5 to 1.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses, and this number will only increase as transporting plastic waste to recycling facilities also emits tons of greenhouse gasses. This is because the vehicles used to transport plastic waste need fossil fuels to power them. Additionally, during the process of transportation, the plastic waste can also easily be dislodged from the inside of the vehicle. This dislodged plastic ends up in the environment, and decomposes into toxic plastic particles. 

Even in the best-case scenario where plastic is recycled, the results from this recycling are still highly detrimental to the health of our planet. According to a study by Reuters in 2021, the Renewlogy chemical-recycling plant that Dow Chemical claimed was able to reprocess mixed plastic waste was ineffective. This was due to the different types of plastic waste being put into the plant that contaminated the entire recycling process. Not only is chemical recycling ineffective, it’s also harmful to the environment due to the emissions it produces. 

Additionally, recycling is an extremely expensive process that requires a large amount of infrastructure to be built. Companies aren’t interested in spending tons of money to recycle and repurpose used plastic when they can simply manufacture more plastic cheaply. Plastic wasn’t even made to be recycled in the first place, and its quality decreases with each cycle it’s recycled. With less than five percent of plastic actually being recycled, recycling is something that costs a lot but doesn’t have a true impact. Though recycling sounds like a great idea, it rarely happens in the first place. And even when recycling does happen, plastics aren’t actually being recycled an overwhelming majority of the time. In order to preserve our environment against the dangers of plastic, the only true solution is to decouple ourselves from our dependency on plastic items. Instead of using single use plastic bags, plastic bottles, or plastic utensils, opt for reusables instead.