Recycling’s Big Problem

Rows of plastic water bottles.
Rows of plastic water bottles. Photo credit to @jon_chng on Unsplash.

The environmental harm of plastic waste is continuously plastered on sustainability and eco-friendly campaigns that aim to encourage recycling. Being eco-conscious has become a modern-day trend where even large corporations are making the switch to sustainable packaging options. These alternatives, however, do tend to be more costly.

Because of this, the majority of our day-to-day products are still being wrapped in a shiny material – plastic – despite a growing awareness of its harmful impact to the environment. It may be easy to turn a blind eye to these costly substitutions when we consciously make the effort to recycle our plastic waste. But how much of the plastic in our blue bins is actually recycled?

The US generated 292 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2022. From that, less than 9% of the plastic category was recycled. At the same time, the amount of plastic waste has nearly doubled. With demand for plastic containers increasing, recycling initiatives are struggling to keep up.

It is also important to note that plastic degrades each time it is reused, which means it can only be recycled once or twice before it becomes unusable. Whether it is recycled or not, a plastic container will eventually become waste that can take centuries to decompose, not to mention the harmful microplastics it will leave behind in the process.

Manufacturing new plastic is cheaper than recycling it. Let’s take into account what the recycling process entails: a crew to collect it, a crew to sort it, and a crew to melt it, not to mention all the resources utilized like energy and water. All these expenses can add up into a costly bill thus making it less appealing to recycle a plastic bottle than to incinerate or bury it in a landfill.

Plastic is everywhere. From your groceries and containers to your toiletries and cosmetics, plastic-wrapped items are almost impossible to avoid. The resources to keep up with such consumption are simply non-existent. As consumers we have been sold the idea that as long as we recycle our plastic, then we can continue to use it without harming the environment. But who exactly is behind the messaging?

For decades, our belief that every plastic item we use will be recycled has been shaped by the very companies that financially benefit from plastic consumption. Petroleum and gas industries are the main manufacturers of plastic and one of the main contributors of the influential recycling campaigns you see nearly everywhere.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” said Larry Thomas in an interview for NPR. Thomas is the former president of what is known today as the Plastic Industry Association, one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, DC.

At the same time, this false messaging has been supported by prominent brands that package their products in the synthetic that is manufactured by the big plastic industry. For many, the alternatives are still too costly of an investment and thus plastic still remains the cheaper option that yields a higher profit.

Although this newfound information may be shocking, don’t give up recycling your plastics quite yet. It is important to acknowledge that despite the small amount that actually gets recycled, you are still preventing that plastic from ending up in landfills.

Although it may seem impossible with how many products are wrapped in plastic, a few minimal choices can significantly decrease your overall waste. When shopping for produce, opt for the unpackaged option and utilize reusable mesh bags or paper bags. Additionally, choose foods and beverages wrapped in cardboard or paper packaging rather than the plastic option.

Whereas plastic containers will only be recycled once or twice before they are no longer usable, glass and aluminum can be recycled endlessly. These materials offer the most sustainable option without affecting a product’s overall price. Additionally, these materials have a higher recycling rate because they don’t degrade over time.

Consumers have the collective power to promote change in the way companies approach the plastic problem. Today, more brands are jumping into the eco-friendly wagon due to its influence in consumer trends. Send big plastic industries a message by choosing more sustainable brands that have pledged to decrease plastic waste.

Written by Editorial Team

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