Recycling Plastic – Is It A Big Lie?

By Jason Deines

By 2050, plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish, predicts a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the World Economic Forum. The report projects the oceans will contain at least 937 million tons of plastic and 895 million tons of fish by 2050.

It's becoming painfully obvious that the way we are handling our plastic waste isn't working. Sure, we can show as many images of burning plastic, heaping piles of plastic, children playing in rubbish, littered beaches, and dying sea life, but is that really going to make a difference? It's obvious the problem is getting worse and will continue until drastic steps are taken.

Before I get too far into my little rant I do need to admit my ignorance, and that I have made mistakes and contributed to the problem even though I thought I was making better decisions. When my wife published 5 Tips to Help You Reduce Plastic and Create Less Waste I thought I was doing a pretty good job at helping the environment. Honestly, many of the products she mentions can be useful for years and greatly reduce the amount of single-use plastics we consume.

It wasn't until I watched an episode from PBS on Frontline called Plastic Wars that I realized I wasn't doing enough, and that I had false beliefs when it came to recycling plastics.  I highly recommend this video to anyone wanting to learn more about the oil and plastic industries that have been misleading consumers for decades and how they spend millions of dollars each year to keep us in the dark. Don't worry, the 50 minutes go surprising quickly.

Plastic Pollution

Every day I sort our plastic trash, I look at the number in the chasing arrow and anything with a '1' or a '2' goes into the blue bin while everything else goes into an orange bag provided by our local recycling company. Everything in the orange bag, I thought was being recycled, but for years it has just been piling up or shipped to other states, and/or countries to be burned in cement manufacturing plants. Not exactly what I thought I signed up for. That's just on a local level here in Boise, but what about plastic recycling at a national or even global level?

Let's start globally, there really isn't a recycling program globally. There are a few countries that do recycle but not many. In fact, up until 2018 most of our "recycled" plastic was sent to China to be recycled or disposed of. Most of which was considered contaminated and mixed plastic so it ended up in a landfill or being dumped into the ocean.

Research suggests that roughly 10 percent of all plastic is being recycled. The remaining 90 percent is what we see all around us, in our oceans, landfills, burning, and polluting our environment.

Plastic Wars by PBS goes on to expose how the oil and plastic industry has spent millions of dollars to mislead consumers. They run attractive ads on how people can save the environment and wildlife by picking up plastic and recycling. They want you to think that when you recycle you are doing good... well YOU ARE but they know the truth. Most plastic will not be recycled and made into new products. They want to look like they care but in fact, they want to make more money by selling new plastic to consumers. The plastic industry knows the environmental impacts of their products but doesn't share that information with consumers. People think just because there is a chasing arrow on the plastic packaging it is going to be recycled or is recyclable.

Why Isn't Recycling Plastic Working?

Currently, the biggest challenge to recycling -- it doesn't make the oil industry money. They don't profit from recycling and with new regulations on pollution oil industries are seeing their profits shrink while less and fewer fuels are being consumed with technological advancements in electrically powered products. Their answer to replacing those profits is through the production and sale of plastics.

Other hurdles include;

  • New plastic is better and stronger than recycled
  • It costs money to run recycling facilities, they need to make a profit
  • The technology isn't there
  • There are too many different types of plastics
  • The plastics need to be sorted (expensive to do)
  • The chasing arrows symbol is being misused confusing consumers

So I guess what it comes down to in the end is, should people continue to recycle? For me, the simple answer is yes. Eventually, there will be the technology to deal with it and by sorting and recycling it makes it easier for the plastic that typically is recycled to be processed.

I don't want to continue to be a pawn of the big oil companies and blindly buy more and more because I think it is going to be recycled and repurposed. All that does is put money into their shareholders' pockets and damage our environment. I want to do a better job and make better decisions.

I know there are many benefits to plastic and it plays a vital role in most of our lives. It's in our homes, vehicles, protective gear, technology, plastic is literally everywhere. Plastic packaging has its benefits, and I want to use it wisely, for our products and the products we purchase.

 

Plastic By The Numbers Guide

Want to know what the number in the chasing arrow means and which plastics are recycled and/or which plastics can be repurposed at home?

PET chasing arrow
PETE chasing arrow

#1 - PET - Polyethylene Terephthalate - PET is a clear plastic commonly used in products made for water and soda bottles. Because these bottles are easier to sort, and since many states offer small refunds for returning empties to the store about 25 - 30 percent of this type of plastic is recycled. The plastic is smashed down and shredded into flakes to be used in making other products.

Products made from PET plastic should be recycled but not be reused at home because it may leach carcinogens.

HDPE chasing arrow

#2 - HDPE - High-density Polyethylene - HDPE plastic is very popular in products ranging from detergent bottles, toys, food containers, milk jugs, and household chemical containers. HDPE holds up under hot and cold conditions and is very durable. It is used in making park benches, trash cans, and picnic tables just to name a few.

Containers made from HDPE are recyclable and can be cleaned and reused at home.  Even though HDPE is recyclable it is estimated that only 30 - 34 percent of products made from HDPE are being recycled in the U.S.

PVC chasing arrow

#3 - PVC - Polyvinyl Chloride - PVC is a strong plastic and you'd likely find it in your home in one form or another. It holds up well in most weather conditions so it makes good window frames, pipes, and packaging materials. Up until 2006 PVC was commonly used for plastic wrap. Even though it isn't a common practice any longer the alternatives aren't necessarily safe either. You should never heat food in the microwave with any type of plastic wrap due to possible leaching of toxic chemicals. PVC is rarely recycled and typically ends up in the landfill or oceans. It should never be reused for food applications.

Over time PVC releases toxins, and should be avoided.

LDPE chasing arrow

#4 - LDPE - Low-density Polyethylene - LDPE is highly used in the food industry for squeezable bottles, grocery bags, shrink wrap, toothpaste tubes, and other types of food packaging. Many grocery stores ask that you bring your old plastic grocery bag back to be recycled. Most local recycling programs don't have the technology to handle LDPE plastic. Most LDPE plastic ends up in the landfill or ocean.

There are concerns about how safe LDPE plastic is, it is considered less safe than #2 and #5 but there is a risk it could leach chemicals.

PP chasing arrow

#5 - PP - Polypropylene - Even though plastic made from PP is considered one of the safest plastics (along with HDPE) it is rarely recycled. PP is often used for shampoo bottles, yogurt containers, cereal box liners, disposable diapers, packing tape, and chip bags. As recycling companies develop programs and are able to better sort out PP plastic there is a market for it. For now most PP plastic ends up in the landfill or ocean.

PS chasing arrow

#6 - PS - Polystyrene - PS is your typical styrofoam used for disposable cups, food containers, and packing peanuts. I think this was one of the first plastic people recognized as a "bad" plastic and started building awareness. PS isn't considered safe because it contains chemicals that have been linked to causing health problems.

PS breaks down easily and accounts for over 1/3 of what's in our landfills. Even though there is technology to recycle PS, there isn't a market for it. Beaches all over the world have bits and pieces of PS floating around and there are major concerns about the amount of marine life that has consumed PS and the effects this will have.

PS should be avoided!

OTHER chasing arrow

#7 - Other - The 'Other' category makes up any other types of plastic or a combination of the above. The Other, category includes plastics with BPA and should never be used again unless they have the PLA compostable coding. Shockingly, this type of plastic is common in baby bottles, sippy cups, car parts, and food containers.

This type of plastic is almost never recycled and ends up in the landfill or ocean.

OTHER plastics should be avoided!

Conclusion

For me, what it boils down to is understanding that not all plastics are the same. It takes resources and a market to be able to recycle most plastics. Some plastics are just downright dangerous and the planet has been polluted with them for decades.

Understanding our local recycling programs is important. By following the guidelines it makes it easier for recyclers to do their job.

Make informed decisions and don't be wasteful. Reuse whenever you can and find alternatives that serve the same purpose as plastic, many will last years and drastically reduce the amount of plastic you consume.