The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic
By Mary Mazzoni
Global consumers now use a million plastic bottles every minute, 91 percent of which are not recycled. Our growing consumption of single-use plastic is evident in the form of ever-expanding landfills, as well as pollution on our sidewalks, along roadways and in natural ecosystems. Plastic that is littered or blown out of waste bins makes its way into storm drains, streams and rivers. Ultimately, up to 8 million metric tons of it enter the world’s oceans every year.
Scientists aren’t sure how long it takes for plastic to fully biodegrade—estimates range from 450 years to never, National Geographic reported in its June issue, which is devoted to the mounting plastic pollution problem. But we know enough to know that the staggering 9.2 billion metric tons of plastic produced since the 1950s isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. At this rate, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
Many now consider ocean plastic pollution an existential threat on par with climate change, but it seems like it should be an easy one to fix. Plastic is recyclable, after all, so why can’t we just recycle it? It turns out it’s not as simple as it sounds.
Around two-thirds of the plastic that enters the ocean from rivers is carried by only 20 waterways—the majority of which are on the Asian continent, where access to waste collection and recycling is often limited. Even in countries with established waste management infrastructure, the picture remains bleak: Less than 10 percent of the plastic used in the U.S. is recycled, according to the most recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Figures improve for select plastic materials—for example, around 30 percent of polyethylene terephthalate, commonly used to package household staples like bottled beverages, condiments and personal care products, is recycled—but even these rates remain woefully out of balance with our increasing reliance on single-use plastic.
To make matters worse, fluctuating demand for recycled material and consumer confusion about what is recyclable make it harder for U.S. collection programs to remain economical. If nothing changes, municipal recycling programs across the country may be forced to scale back or even shut down—hastening our collision course with a new paradigm defined by toxic seas.
This grim reality begs the question: How can developing markets—which now produce roughly half of the world’s plastic—hope to establish effective recycling infrastructures if countries like the U.S. are still unable to get it right? What’s holding us back from recycling more plastic, and what can we do to save our oceans before it’s too late?
The Cost of Confusion
For decades, PR campaigns and public service announcements touted the ease of recycling. “Just move your hand over a few inches,” spokesman after spokesman said, “and throw that plastic, metal or paper into the recycling bin instead of the trash.”
The reality of recycling is far more complicated—even in nations like the U.S., where curbside programs have steadily proliferated since 1980. Neighboring communities can have vastly different recycling programs, and educational campaigns that hinge on industry jargon often do little to ease confusion for residents.
“Most people have the attitude that if they just put it in the blue bin, it will get taken away and somebody will figure out what to do with it, but putting something in the blue bin and actually recycling it are two very different things,” said David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA).
Motivated by good intentions, people throw everything from plastic shopping bags to garden hoses into their curbside carts. According to Biderman, on average, 10 to 15 percent of the material sent to U.S. recycling centers is not recyclable, and it eventually makes its way to local landfills. “You may divert material on the front end, but it’s still going to a landfill in the back end,” Biderman said. “Meanwhile, someone is getting paid to do that processing.”
The results of widespread confusion can be prohibitively expensive for municipalities—and wasted work time is only the tip of the iceberg. Materials like those aforementioned bags and hoses can become tangled in sorting machinery, causing plants to shut down the processing line while workers remove obstructions by hand. If miscellaneous materials are not sorted out, or if containers are contaminated by food waste residue, the quality of the bulk scrap drops—and so does the price it will fetch on the open market.
The landscape is complicated even further by the wide variety of plastics now used to package foods, beverages and other household goods. Packaging manufacturers increasingly favor more lightweight plastics, which carry their own benefits. Namely, opting for lighter-weight packaging means a manufacturer uses less plastic and can ship more product in a smaller amount of space, cutting down on transportation-related emissions. But lightweight plastics are often not recyclable, even though they appear to be, and more of them are entering the recycling stream.
“The goal of a recycling program is to generate saleable material. Paper, plastic and metal can only be sold into the marketplace if it satisfies certain standards, and one of those standards is that it not contain other material,” Biderman said. “When the stream becomes contaminated, the material may not be able to be sold, or it will be sold at a lower price—which makes recycling programs less effective and efficient if they’re not breaking even or making money.”
“On the Brink of Disaster”
On a partly cloudy afternoon in May, recycling haulers and processors from across California converged on the Capitol building to warn lawmakers about a “recycling crisis.” U.S. recyclers process around 66 million tons of material every year, a third of which is exported. Until recently, China was the largest purchaser of bulk plastic, paper and other recyclable materials leaving the U.S., but new regulations have recycling programs “on the brink of disaster,” the haulers said.
At the start of this year, in an attempt to reduce local environmental problems associated with handling more than 45 million tons of foreign waste annually, China imposed what some call an impossible purity standard on imported recyclables. Mixed paper and plastics found to have more than 0.50 percent foreign material by weight are rejected, and barges are forced to return to the U.S. or ship their load to other ports, mostly elsewhere in Asia, where they are sold at a lower price.
“We have a major challenge right now, because the largest export market for American recyclables has basically been shut off,” Biderman said. “India, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have ramped up some of their imports of American recyclables, but it’s still less than half of what China was taking.”
This shift comes as relatively low oil prices make it cheaper to produce plastic from virgin material, further decreasing demand for recycled feedstocks. “Plastic prices are down across the board,” Biderman told us. “Material is moving in most instances, but it’s moving at very low prices.”
California haulers are pushing for dramatic policy changes to help them adapt and told lawmakers they must do more to educate consumers about what is recyclable, but they aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch. At the start of May, Portland, Oregon, was forced to raise its waste-hauling rates for the first time in five years as it struggles to find new buyers for bulk plastic and other materials.
Portland haulers transport recyclables to regional depots, where they are sorted, baled and prepared for export. In years past, the modest fees they received helped to offset hauling costs for residents, but falling prices are leaving haulers in the red. “It hinges on the broader lack of recycling markets,” Bruce Walker, Portland’s solid waste and recycling program manager, said of the rate increase.
“The contamination issue is not solely responsible—there’s a vast oversupply [of recyclables] in the U.S. right now, so if you’re looking at supply and demand, that contributes to lower prices—but contamination certainly plays a role,” Walker said. “Residents can help the program by keeping non-recyclable materials out, but it’s difficult to get that message across with so many very similar types of plastics that enter the household.”
The Role of Corporations
In the U.S., the cost of recycling plastic and other household waste falls on cities—and their taxpayers. But as municipal programs seek new buyers for bulk scrap, many wonder whether the companies that produce single-use packaging should bear more responsibility for recycling it. “For too long, packaging companies have been externalizing the costs of their packaging on local governments,” said Biderman. “They’re changing how they package material and expecting local governments to pick up the tab for it.”
Walker agreed, underscoring the power of U.S. companies to take the financial heat off municipal recycling programs. “If American manufacturers and brand owners were willing to package products using recycled materials, we would be in a much better situation. Unfortunately, those commitments aren’t readily apparent.”
That’s beginning to change, albeit slowly. Launched in 2003, The Recycling Partnership uses funding from companies like PepsiCo and Starbucks to improve municipal recycling infrastructure. It tests contamination reduction and other best practices in the field with partner cities, such as Atlanta, Chicago and Denver, and makes them available to communities across the country. Last year, it joined the Association of Plastic Recyclers to get companies more actively involved. Their campaign, dubbed Recycling Demand Champions, asks companies to recognize that their demand for recycled plastic is vital to the health of U.S. recycling programs and calls on them to purchase more of the material.
Top brands like Target, Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup Co. and Coca-Cola signed on to the initiative and pledged to use more recycled plastic, primarily to replace virgin material in industrial items like trash cans, pallets and tote boxes. This type of application is typical for plastic; unlike other materials such as aluminum and glass, plastic is downcycled far more often than it’s used for new bottles or other containers. So, while initiatives like this one can help recyclers make ends meet and ensure less plastic goes to landfill, they do little to stem the demand for virgin plastic in packaging.
Some companies are going even further. French bottled water giant Evian, for example, plans to use 100 percent recycled plastic bottles by 2025—one of the most aggressive corporate goals on record. Meanwhile, others are looking beyond plastic for products and packaging. UK supermarket chain Iceland will become the world’s first supermarket to eliminate single-use plastic in its branded products within five years. Home-delivery startup ThreeMain says its cleaning products—packaged in aluminum bottles—will eliminate more than 80 percent of the plastic associated with home cleaning. Even toy company Lego may start making its iconic building blocks from sugarcane instead of plastic.
This is all positive, but businesses can do more—and their stakeholders are letting them know it. In response to mounting protest from NGOs, Coca-Cola pledged to “collect and recycle 100 percent of its packaging” by 2030, though Greenpeace says the company is still “dodging the main issue” of its increasing plastic use and pledged to keep the pressure on. Earlier this year, a group of 25 institutional investors with a combined $1 trillion in assets called plastic pollution a clear corporate brand risk and said they will engage consumer goods companies to fight the problem—beginning with PepsiCo, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Shareholder pressure also swayed McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts to move away from polystyrene cups. In announcing victory in the foam cup fight, the shareholder advocacy nonprofit As You Sow declared, “Shareholders [are] stopping the flow of plastics at the source: giant global corporations.”
What You Can Do
Cities across the country are taking action to clean up their recycling streams and preserve the viability of their programs. California instituted a statewide ban on plastic carryout bags in 2016, and cities from Chicago and Boston to Austin, Texas, have their own bag bans on the books. A handful of cities, including Portland, Minneapolis and Washington, DC, ban foam takeout containers. New York City may soon be the latest to ban plastic drinking straws, joining the likes of Seattle, Miami Beach and Malibu, California.
As with any other issue, citizens who are concerned about plastic waste and recycling can contact their representatives and voice support for similar legislation, although bans alone can’t solve the problem. “How many items are we going to have to ban?” Walker asked rhetorically. “That’s not a comprehensive approach either … though in my opinion there needs to be some consideration in other cities with respect to these items that pose problems to the recycling system.”
Even if you feel you know what is recyclable in your community, take the time to visit your local recycling program’s website and review the list of accepted materials. Make sure all recyclable materials are clean and dry before placing them in the bin to avoid contributing to contamination. For materials that are not accepted curbside, use third-party searches like Earth911 or RecycleNation to find drop-off or mail-back recycling options near you.
If your community has yet to establish a curbside program—or if you live, work or attend school at complexes that do not provide recycling—step up to make your voice heard. Connect with the waste management companies that service your area and contact your political representatives, as well as your local solid waste services director and staff, advised Jon Johnston, a retired EPA program leader who now sits on the board of the environmental nonprofit Keep America Beautiful.
Beyond a push for legislation, the plastic problem calls for individuals to take personal ownership of how they contribute. “Single-use plastics are a convenience, but at a resource cost,” said Lucas Mariacher, zero waste coordinator for the city of Phoenix. “The goal should always be to minimize waste disposal by reducing resource consumption [and] reusing resources. Recycling should really be the last resort.”
The Bottom Line
Is recycling enough to stem the tide of plastic entering our oceans? Not by a long shot, but a massive problem like plastic pollution requires a multi-pronged approach that includes source reduction, reuse and recycling—and we need everyone from governments and companies to individuals in the game.
“I would caution you against expecting or wishing that there be a recycling market for everything,” said Robert Reed, spokesperson for San Francisco’s recycling and compost collection company, Recology. “The consistent advice from environmentalists is ‘refuse’ single-use plastics. Refuse plastic straws. Carry a metal water bottle and refuse plastic water bottles … Refuse is the new R word.”
Mary Mazzoni is a freelance environmental journalist and editor based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared on TriplePundit, Yahoo Travel, Budget Travel and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.