From the Recycling Bin to the Landfill: The Major Flaw in Plastic Recycling

From the Recycling Bin to the Landfill: The Major Flaw in Plastic Recycling

(Avigator Fortuner/Shutterstock)

Cara Michelle Miller

Cara Michelle Miller

4/2/2024

Updated: 4/2/2024

People may be putting plastic into recycling bins, but most of it generally ends up in landfills or incinerated.
Yet the demand for more plastic production continues—at a growing cost to human and environmental health—because of the belief that recycling offsets the associated waste and risks. A new report by the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) alleges that the plastics industry knowingly caused the current plastic waste crisis.
The nonprofit’s report claims that as the plastics industry faced mounting concerns over plastics being incinerated and piling up in landfills, they promoted recycling as a viable solution while dismissing it internally as impractical.
“They knew since the 1970s that plastic recycling was not going to be scalable and effective in tackling the plastic waste crisis,” Melissa Valliant, communications director of Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit aiming to reduce single-use plastic use and production, explained to The Epoch Times.
The report asserts that the efforts to sell the false promise of plastic recycling were to avoid restrictive regulations and potential product bans.

Plastic Recycling Poses Many Challenges

According to the report, one problem with plastic recycling is that it is not technically or economically feasible at scale. Unlike glass and metal, plastic cannot be repeatedly recycled without quickly degrading in quality. Most recyclable plastics can typically only be recycled once. As a result, most recycled plastic eventually ends up in landfills, even if it goes through an additional use cycle as another product.
Between the 1970s and 2015, 91 percent of plastic was either landfilled, burned, or leaked into the environment, according to a global analysis published in Science Advances. Another recent report published by Beyond Plastics estimated that less than 6 percent of plastic in the United States is successfully recycled.
These figures are based on all plastic waste generated, which includes plastics not made to be recycled and those thrown away. As for the plastic that makes it to a recycling center, there isn’t an official nationwide estimate of what percent of those plastics get recycled in the end.
However, certain types of plastic containers—soda and water bottles (PET 1) and milk jugs (HDPE 2), in particular—are more likely to be recycled.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international organization focused on improving public policies, says only 9 percent of plastic collected for recycling worldwide in 2019 was actually recycled; 50 percent went into landfills, and 22 percent was mismanaged.
Another challenge is that there are too many different types of plastics. Recyclable plastics cannot be recycled with plastics made of different chemical compositions, and sorting the waste is infeasible.

Decades of Misleading Messaging

The plastics industry’s actions “effectively protected and expanded plastic markets,” the CCI report states, “while stalling legislative or regulatory action that would meaningfully address plastic waste and pollution.”
The report, highlighting industry communications and documents, details how, beginning in the 1950s, the plastics industry’s profits soared with single-use disposable plastics, and this “shift to disposables” created the waste problem.
In response, the industry promoted landfilling and incineration. However, by the 1980s, the plastics industry faced growing backlash and legislation to limit the sale of single-use plastics because of pollution and its environmental impact.
The industry “launched multimillion-dollar ad and PR campaigns to convince the public consumer that this was a consumer problem; just put the right things in the bin, and all the plastic pollution would go away,” said Ms. Valliant.
Plastic production then skyrocketed, from approximately 2 million tons of plastic in the 1950s to nearly 460 million tons in 2019, and continues to rise.
The CCI report cites a 1986 report by Vinyl Institute, a trade association, that “recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution [to plastics], as it merely prolongs the time until an item is disposed of.”
Eight years later, an Exxon employee warned the American Plastics Council staffers that they did not “want paper floating around” saying they could not meet recycling goals since the issue was “HIGHLY SENSITIVE POLITICALLY.”
The report’s authors aim to hold fossil fuel and other petrochemical companies accountable by pointing out that these admissions contradict decades of messaging promoting recycling.

Plastics Companies Cite New Technologies, Goals

Twenty petrochemical companies, including major oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil, manufacture half of the world’s single-use plastics, according to the CCI.
In response to the CCI report, the Plastics Industry Association characterized the report as “political attacks” and that it is based on “outdated information and false claims.”
“This report was created by an activist, anti-recycling organization and disregards the incredible investments in recycling technologies made by our industry,” Matt Seaholm, president and chief executive officer of the Plastics Industry Association, said in the press statement.
Similarly, in a statement published by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Ross Eisenberg, the president of America’s Plastic Makers, called the report flawed, saying it “cites outdated, decades-old technologies, and works against our goals to be more sustainable by mischaracterizing the industry and the state of today’s recycling technologies.” He also pointed to the benefits of plastics and how they can be reused to meet different needs.
“We’ve set an ambitious goal for all US plastic packaging to be reused, recycled, recovered by 2040, and we are working towards this goal by supporting systems and technologies that remake new plastics from used plastics,” he shared.
But many wonder: Even if the ACC’s 2040 goal is met, does it solve the wide-ranging issues linked to plastics?

Is Recycling Enough?

“Possibly more concerning than the environmental impacts are the health impacts of plastics on the human body,” said Ms. Valliant, who recommends consumers focus on efforts to reduce, reuse, recycle, and, when possible, refuse single-use plastic.
The management of plastics “needs to be addressed at a higher level than the individual,” Mathew Campen, a toxicologist from the University of New Mexico, told The Epoch Times.
When plastic is recycled improperly, it ends up not only in landfills and water sources but also in our soil, air, and even our bodies. Every day, we eat, drink, and inhale tiny bits of plastic because plastic doesn’t biodegrade over time—it simply breaks down into ever-smaller particles.
Mr. Campen, who investigates the impact of environmental toxicants on human health, is concerned about the increasing amount of plastics, specifically microplastics, in the environment and the potential effects.
“The truth is, governments and industry need to figure out a path to actually take care of this waste and not have it show up in our bodies,” he added.
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Cara Michelle Miller

Cara Michelle Miller

Author

Cara Michelle Miller is a freelance writer and holistic health educator. She taught at the Pacific College of Health and Science in NYC for 12 years and led communication seminars for engineering students at The Cooper Union. She now writes articles with a focus on integrative care and holistic modalities.

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