You've gathered a trove of plastic this week. Triumphantly, you parade over to your blue bin and plop it inside with a satisfying thwack. You dust your hands and pat yourself on the back - you're a good person; you care enough to recycle.
But, after you and your good intentions drop that plastic off, where does it go?
Spoiler Alert: Not where you think it should.
Paved With Good Intentions
Since the 1960s, we U.S. citizens have significantly improved at recycling. Over the past 60 years, we've increased our recycling rate by 25%! It's a part of our culture to care about our nature and the beauty of our surroundings. Excellent efforts, like trash clean-ups, are being made across our nation every day to help keep our country beautiful!
As admirable as these efforts are, we've been misled about how much of a difference recycling makes. Out of all plastic put in blue bins across the U.S., only 9% is actually recycled.
A lot of plastic isn't recyclable by our plants, and the labeling is quite confusing! Even when there's a little recycle symbol on your item, it still might not get accepted by your local waste facility. The numbers matter, and each city accepts a different set:
Plastic isn't well-regulated in our country. Companies can create goods out of all sorts of materials, even ones that our recycling plants can't currently handle. Much of what goes into our bins gets sorted out and carted to landfills. Once there, it sits and fails to decompose.
The facts above become genuinely terrifying when you compare our country with the rest of the world. In total annual plastic waste generation, we are worse than any other country. In 2016 alone, we generated 42 million metric tons of plastic, that's roughly 280 pounds of plastic waste per person.
We also don't rank well with our recycling rates. Some countries like South Korea and Austria have managed to recycle more than half of their plastic. Meanwhile, we're struggling to recycle one-tenth of our supply.
A Sword in the Road
From 1992-2018, we relied on China to take care of our plastic problem. We sold over half of our plastic waste to China, and they readily accepted it. In efforts to develop, China needed raw materials and was willing to take even our lower-quality plastics.
Instead of developing our own recycling plants, we seized the opportunity and loaded our low-quality waste onto Pacific shipping vessels. The world knew that they weren't treating the supply sustainably, but we shrugged it off because it "was no longer our problem".
Then, in 2018, China banned the import of foreign garbage. Their acceptance of other countries' waste had led to their countryside and waterways littered with plastic; not even they could recycle all that they received. They made a change to save their people and prevent their own domestic pollution. The rest of the world had suddenly lost their recycling crutches.
Once again, the problem we sold to China was our own to deal with. Unlike China, we never developed the industry enough to meet the needs of our waste production. Without that treasured income, a once-lucrative industry suddenly became an expensive burden we were not equipped for.
We weren't prepared for the change. We never needed to worry about investing in our recycling infrastructure -China was taking care of it for us. When cities prepared budgets, recycling was always an afterthought. Why improve recycling when there are repairs to be made and schools to fund?
We based our decisions on an unsustainable solution; now, we're stuck in a bizarre, plastic limbo. Those plastics we used to sell are piling up in our harbors, filling plant storages, and sitting in landfills. Some recycling programs, overwhelmed by the number of recyclables they can't process, resort to sending their supply to incinerators.
Many had high hopes for the free market to take over the issue, but the impact of domestic business is not grand enough. Most recycled plastic is low-quality and not very cost-effective. Many companies avoid purchasing recycled products and instead choose new, cheaper plastics. A more affordable, higher-quality option is a no-brainer for a company without the want or need to switch over to something better for the planet. Plus, much recycled plastic becomes flimsier each time it's recycled, making our recycled supply less desirable for most businesses.
What Can We Do?
It's time to break up with single-use plastics. We're in a toxic relationship with the plastic industry. They're destroying our planet while telling us we're responsible for saving it. We keep hoping that they'll change; they won't.
Policies that could make a difference die in congress committees. Since the 1960s, politicians have squabbled over recycling incentives and penalties, filibustered away solutions and accepted campaign donations to delay decisions.
Enough is enough. It's time we take this issue into our own hands.
We can change our planet by shifting away from our focus on recycling and putting our efforts into reducing and reusing.
Instead of waiting for recycling to work, we can avoid purchasing items that are in plastic packaging and switch over to reusable or biodegradable items. We can seek out companies that are packaging items sustainably and support them with purchases and engagement. For companies that are reluctant to move away from their single-use packaging, we can hold them accountable, pester them to make changes, and even boycott them.
The recycling industry is trash. Let's leave it where it belongs.
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