Think You’re Doing Your Part by Recycling?

Think again: Much of the plastic dropped in recycling bins isn’t even recycled. In 2014, 22% of PET plastic collected for recycling was exported out of the United States. Why? Our facilities can’t keep up: Plastic production surged from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 tons in 2014—an increase of more than 2,000 percent. Currently, more than 300 million tons of new plastic is produced annually and less than 10% is recycled.

As oil prices fluctuate, so too does the price of plastic. When those markets are depressed, virgin plastic becomes far cheaper to buy than recycled. In addition, many plastic products degrade each time they’re processed—unlike metal or glass, which can be perpetually recycled—making them progressively less valuable.

Without a profitable market in which to sell it, it’s not cost-effective for many recycling companies to process plastic, so many sell it to other countries at a loss. In 2011, plastic trash was America’s primary export to China.

In countries like India, waste pickers sort through the trash to find the pieces that are most valuable—thicker plastics and metals. The remainder becomes landfilled or incinerated, creating a health crisis for communities. Local waterways act like conveyor belts, sending plastic straight out to sea.

8 Million Metric Tons of Plastic Enter the Ocean Each Year

Where does it all go? Most plastic are made from petroleum and built to last—some for thousands of years. In the ocean, sun and waves break down most plastics into small microparticles, which never truly biodegrade. The result? 5 Gyres led research that found there is an estimated 5.25 trillion particles of “plastic smog” weighing in at 270,000 tons in our oceans worldwide.

Once in the water, microplastics attract persistent organic pollutants like flame retardants and other industrial chemicals linked to human health problems—even cancer. They can be one million times more toxic than the water around them. These pollutants can work their way up the food chain—and onto our plates.

Is “compostable” plastic the answer? Not exactly. Yes, it’s made from non-petroleum sources. But you need a large composting facility to break down soy, bagasse (made from sugar) and PLA (made from corn) plastic. Because PLA is hard to break down, some recycling facilities consider it a contaminant. Only PHA (made from bacteria) is marine degradable—and only to a point: Within six months, it degrades by 30% but only in warm, tropical waters.

New materials are being developed from natural sources that could eventually provide viable, biodegradable alternatives to petroleum-based plastic. These include methane, mushrooms, and even milk!

Meanwhile, to reduce the amount of plastic that you contribute to the problem, pledge to go #plasticfree:

  • Refuse the top five sources of single-use plastic: plastic bags, water bottles, to go containers, takeaway cups and straws.
    Use a reusable water bottle or shopping bag to start a conversation with your friends and family about the impact of single-use plastics.
  • If single-use plastic is unavoidable, choose to support brands that commit to recycled packaging.