This information about recycling may be news to a lot of you, and to some it’s a tragic reality we already know.
Most of the plastic we try to recycle ends up in landfills.
Many of us, including myself up until a few years ago, believed that as long as we recycled our plastic shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, one use soap dispensers, cardboard, glass, bags, and other items with the little recycling triangle on it that it would show up at the recycling facility and happily be melted down and repurposed into something new.
Well, it’s actually not so, for a few reasons. One of which being contamination. If something is contaminated, such as cardboard pizza box with grease residue, it goes to landfill instead of getting recycled. Same goes for plastics that have hard to clean residue, especially if it’s food because it likely will be molded by the time it reaches the recycling facility. Another reason your items aren’t getting recycled is because of a low or non-existent profit margin on recycling certain plastics. If the recycling facility deems something as not profitable for recycling it ends up in landfill. That means when certain items are going to be more expensive to recycle than their end product will be worth they will not get recycled at all, and instead be thrown away.
Finally, the third reason most of our recycling doesn’t get recycled is simply because we lack the manpower and the facilities to keep up with all the waste that we produce. Up until January 2018 China was taking in about half of the world’s recycling because it has a higher manufacturing rate than most other countries and needed the extra resources. But since January 2018 they decided to discontinue accepting most plastic exports from other countries because hazardous waste was often mixed in with the plastics and has damaged their environment over the years. Likewise, most of the plastic had not been cleaned thoroughly and oftentimes non-recyclable items were mixed in with the recyclables.
Due to the decision to stop taking in most foreign plastic has caused many countries to have an accumulation of plastic which they do not have the means to properly eradicate or recycle.
Consequently, this excess waste and plastic ends up in our landfills. This doesn’t mean not to recycle at all. In fact, if you have items that can be recycled I encourage to continue to recycle them. Recycling is still a better chance of our resources being reused than not trying at all.
Think of every plastic item that you have that can be recycled:
For example, water bottles, shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, the bottle you mouthwash comes in, that your juice comes in, your milk… let’s face it practically everything we buy. Do you recycle it? Good, hopefully it arrived to a facility that can manage to recycle it. Did you rinse it out thoroughly? No? Then hate to break it to you, it probably didn’t get recycled.
What about all the other items we use that can’t be recycled at all? What about every plastic bag at your local grocery store? Some get reused to pick up animal waste, and some stores allow you to recycle these bags back to them, but that’s far and few. Most plastic bags will end up in landfill.
What about other plastics that cannot be recycled?
Unlike plastic bottles, most plastic utensils cannot be recycled, other items include toothbrushes, most bags of chips and other snacks, anything packaged in saran wrap like meat and some vegetables, or any other bag encasing food that doesn’t have a recycling symbol on it. Plastic straws cannot be recycled. Your take-out food containers cannot be recycled due to contamination, and also on the list we have Styrofoam (most of the time), aerosol cans, batteries, diapers, cardboard drinks, and yogurt cups. Yes, even those. If you look at some of these items they will have a symbol for recycling, but most facilities reject anything with recycling numbers 3 through 7 because of the poor profit margin.
Another thing to note: most plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it loses it’s integrity to a point where it can no longer be recycled.
I was honestly under the impression that plastics could be recycled over and over again indefinitely, but that isn’t the case. The only materials that can be recycled endlessly are metals and glass. Note: I’ve heard that recently scientist have developed a plastic that can be recycled endlessly, but most products you buy are not currently made with this plastic. Moreover, it is more efficient to avoid the plastic altogether, after all having nothing to recycle uses less energy and resources than recycling itself.
We’ve been taught reduce, reuse, recycle our whole lives, but at this point it seems apparent that this method isn’t enough.
Therefore, I’d like for you to consider a new R in the cycle, and that is Refrain. Refrain from using plastic as much as possible in whatever methods you can. There are people who have managed to eliminate using plastic entirely, and I commend them. I too am trying to make it to that point, but it’s a difficult transition to make all at once. But everything you do will help.
“I’m just one person. I can’t make a difference.”
You cannot have the “all or nothing” mentality that you have to be perfect to help the environment, and you cannot have the mentality that your efforts won’t make a difference. What we need is most of the world being aware of this huge problem and each person doing whatever they can to prevent it from getting worse. If everyone tried to make a few changes, collectively we could really make a difference in the amount of waste we produce. One person making a change isn’t a huge difference. Millions of people not trying at all because they don’t believe they can make a difference IS HUGE. That is why I ask that you please refrain from this sort of mentality.
I’m just one person too. I use straws more than anyone I know. 2-3 times a day. I switched to metal in 2015, it is now near the end of 2019. In one year I would have used at least 730 straws if I hadn’t made the switch.
In the 4.5 years it’s been since I quit using plastic straws a whopping 3,285 straws DID NOT GO TO LANDFILL. And I’m just one person. I would say that’s pretty significant.
And please take it seriously when I say we have to make these changes. At our current rate of waste there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050. So best thing you can do is avoid using plastic, but if you do then be sure to clean it thoroughly and recycle it. Most people, sadly, don’t even bother to recycle at all.
Check out this recycling fact from the National Geographic:
“91% of plastic isn’t recycled. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority—79 percent—is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter.”
This problem is especially apparent in America, check out the facts from this site on that:
Americans represent 5% of the world’s population, but generate 30% of the world’s garbage.
So what do we do?
Whatever we can. The situation is dire, and you might be feeling overwhelmed by it. I know I was. But you can make baby steps to reduce the amount of plastic you use, and eventually when you feel comfortable you can begin to use less and less. I have been practicing avoiding plastic for a couple of years now, and I’m definitely not perfect, but that’s not the point. We all have to try as much as we can. I started carrying my own reusable silverware with me, carry reusable grocery bags with me in my purse, and made some changes in the everyday household products and toiletries I use.
So please remember to clean out your recyclable items thoroughly to increase their chances of actually getting recycled, bring your own bags to the grocery store if you can, make an effort to avoid buying things that cannot be recycled, and try to find substitutes for things that come in plastic packaging.
You don’t have to do it all at once, and you don’t have to do it all. But please, just start where and when you can. We’re all counting on each other here, and I know we can do this.