Briefing

Should you even bother throwing plastic in the recycling bin?

Recycling plastic is garbage, Greenpeace says in a new report. So, landfill then?

Thank you for carefully rinsing, sorting, and recycling your plastic containers — but plastic is trash and trying to recycle it is futile, Greenpeace said in late October. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have been warning about the petroleum and chemical industry's "greenwashing" of plastic recycling for years, while those chemical companies insist we're just on the cusp of a major breakthrough that will make recycling and reusing plastics feasible and cost-effective. 

Consumers, meanwhile, are stuck in the middle. Is recycling plastic just a feel-good charade we should stop bothering to play act, or is there some utility in keeping up the plastic recycling stream? 

What does Greenpeace's new report say?

U.S. households produced about 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, and only 2.4 million tons of that was recycled, Greenpeace USA said in its report, "Circular Claims Fall Flat Again." That means only about 5 to 6 percent of U.S. plastic waste is recycled, down from a peak of 9.5 percent in 2014 and 8.7 percent in 2018, before China stopped accepting America's plastic refuse for either recycling, burning, or dumping. 

Some plastic is recycled at higher rates. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) No. 1, commonly used for bottled beverages, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) No. 2, used for milk jugs and shampoo and detergent bottles, are recycled at rates of 20.9 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively, Greenpeace says. But every other type of plastic falls below 5 percent.

"The data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable," Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA senior plastics campaigner, said in a statement. "More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and, without drastic change, will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050." 

So no plastic is recyclable?

You can recycle most plastics, but the current process requires a lot of energy, produces pollutants, and costs more to turn into something reusable than just using virgin plastic. And recycling 5 percent of America's plastic is presumably better than recycling zero percent. 

What Greenpeace means when it says plastic isn't recyclable is that to meet the definition of recyclable used by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastic Economy (EMF NPE) Initiative, an item must have a recycling rate of at least 30 percent. Not even the most recyclable type of plastic meets that threshold in the U.S. 

The Federal Trade Commission's "green guide" uses a different measurement of recyclability, where you can label something "recyclable" only if 60 percent of consumers have access to a recycling facility that can recycle the item, The Verge reports. Under that definition, PET and HDPE bottles and jugs qualify as recyclable. Yogurt containers, plastic cups, plastic plates, and other common products don't come close to that 60 percent threshold, though, and "just because people have access to PET and HDPE recycling facilities doesn't mean that those products are actually getting recycled," The Verge notes. 

What happens to plastic we throw in the recycling bin, then?

"It's not going to a recycling facility and being recycled," Trent Carpenter, the general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, tells NPR News. "It's going to a recycling facility and being landfilled someplace else because [you] can't do anything with that material." Plastic waste is also sometimes burned, releasing toxic fumes, and some of it ends up in the ocean, where it degrades and leeches out microplastic particles that are shown up in fish, birds, and humans. 

"We had to re-educate individuals that a great deal of that material is ending up in a landfill," and people did not want to hear it, Carpenter added. "Politically it's easier to just say 'Gosh, we're going to take everything and we think we can get it recycled,' and then look the other way," but "that's greenwashing at its best." 

Some of it is being recycled and reused, of course. The National Association for PET Container Resources said 21 percent of plastic bottles collected for recycling in 2017 were turned into new things, for example — though this was also before China stopped taking U.S. plastic.

Could plastic become practically recyclable?

The plastics industry keeps saying yes. "What we are trying to do is really create a circular economy for plastics because we think it is the most viable option for keeping plastic out of the environment," Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council trade group, tells The Associated Press. "I think we are on the cusp of a sustainability revolution where circularity will be the centerpiece of that," he added. "And innovative technologies like advanced recycling will be what makes this possible."

The "advanced recycling" he refers to is also called chemical recycling, and some large plastics companies are sinking significant resources into building large plastic recycling plants. "The main chemical recycling technologies use pyrolysis, gasification, or depolymerization," AP reports. "U.S. plastics producers have said they will recycle or recover all plastic packaging used in the United States by 2040."

"Our mission is to solve plastic pollution," said Jeremy DeBenedictis, president of Alterra Energy, which runs the largest plant recycling plant in the U.S., in Akron, Ohio. "That is not just a tagline. We all truly want to solve plastic pollution." Alterra turns about 75 percent of its plastic waste into a synthetic oil solution that can be shipped to petrochemical plants to make new plastic products, while 15 percent is transformed into full to run the process.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin announced the creation of a new enzyme earlier this year that breaks down PET plastic in as little as 48 hours, dissolving "everything from water bottles to clamshell packaging for food," graduate student Daniel Acosta told Atlanta's WSB TV. The new enzyme, FAST PETase, was created using artificial intelligence. 

The FAST PETase enzyme is still in the lab-testing phase. "We're trying to go as quickly as we can and I think we will have significant progress on transitioning to things like landfills within about a year," Andrew Ellington, a molecular biosciences professor at UT, tells WSB TV. DeBenedictis said he's licensing Alterra's technology as well because that's the "best way to make the quickest impact to the world."

Is cutting back on plastic a realistic possibility?

It is the only realistic possibility, Greenpeace argues. "The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill," Greenpeace's Ramsden said. "This isn't actually a new concept — it's how the milkman used to be, it's how Coca-Cola used to get its beverages to people. They would drink their beverage, give the glass bottle back, and it would be sanitized and reused."

The huge plastic users — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever — should voluntarily do this, or they can be compelled to do it, Ramsden said. "We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It is time for corporations to turn off the plastic tap. Instead of continuing to greenwash and mislead the American public, industry should stand on the right side of history this November and support an ambitious Global Plastics Treaty that will finally end the age of plastic by significantly decreasing production and increasing refill and reuse."

At the same time, plastic has undergone an "extraordinary evolution as a material" since it was iconically pilloried in Mike Nichols' 1967 classic The Graduate, as John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker in 2010, near the peak of plastic recycling, according to Greenpeace. 

"In the film, 'plastics' is understood to mean a cheap, sterile, ugly, and meaningless way of life, boring almost by definition — the embodiment of everything about the values of the older generation that seems repugnant to young Benjamin," Seabrook wrote. "Plastics! What a joke! How uncool! Forty-three years later, Mr. McGuire's advice doesn't seem so uncool." Plastics are "moving ever higher in art and design, to say nothing of medicine," and "if you imagine a world in which millions of people have 3-D printers on their desks, to which they can download designs from the Internet and print products, then a lot of things are going to be made out of plastic."

Kate O'Neill, a professor at U.C. Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and the author of the book Waste, has come to believe that chemical recycling has to be part of the solution to the world's plastics crisis, even though saying so will "piss off the environmentalists," she told AP. "With some of these big problems," O'Neill said, "we can't rule anything out."

Is it worth the bother to throw plastic in the recycling bin, then?

Evidently, "for a long time now, there's been no difference between separating, rinsing out and recycling that plastic juice bottle and simply tossing in with the rest of your household trash," Tom Wrobleski writes at the Staten Island Advance. "In fact, it's probably better to put the bottle in the kitchen garbage bag because at least that way it's contained and will be landfilled." 

The hard reality is that "plastic bottles and containers are everywhere," and "if we can't recycle them, we're going to have to figure something else out," Wrobleski adds. "Being green turns out to have been a lot harder than they told us."

"I know this can feel demoralizing because it can seem that recycling is pointless," John Oliver said in a Last Week Tonight segment on plastics in 2021. "But it's important to know that it's not. We should absolutely keep recycling paper, cardboard, and aluminum — and even recycling plastic, while it may be 90 percent more pointless than you assumed, can still have modest environmental benefits," if you sort the right kinds of plastics into your recycling bin.

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