Exposing The Myth Of Plastic Recycling: Why A Majority Is Burned Or Thrown In A Landfill

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What can and cannot be recycled? (Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images)
What can and cannot be recycled? (Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images)

This story is part of "Covering Climate Now," a week-long global initiative of over 250 news outlets.

Many Americans go through great pains to recycle plastic.

But much of that plastic isn’t recycled at all. In fact, the idea that plastics are refashioned into new products is largely a myth, Sharon Lerner writes in The Intercept.

“The vast majority of plastic that has ever been produced — 79% — has actually ended up in landfills or scattered around the world or burned, but not refashioned into new products, which is what we hope for when we talk about recycling,” Lerner says. “For plastic bags, it's less than 1% of tens of billions that are used in the U.S. alone. And so overall in the U.S., our plastic recycling rate peaked in 2014 at 9.5% so that's less than 10%.”

She says recycling companies go to great lengths to sell their products. China used to take the majority of American plastic until 2017, but it wasn’t actually recycled when it got there.

“For a long time, we've just been offloading our waste and that allows us not to see it, right?” Lerner says. “We put it in a bag. It goes somewhere else. Goodbye. And it allows us not to feel guilt.”

Another problem is a lot of local governments tell residents to put all types of plastics in the recycle bin. That’s an issue because some types simply aren’t recyclable, says Judith Enck, a former regional Environmental Protection Agency official and founder of Beyond Plastics.

“They did that because they thought it would be easier for people, and then they would pull out the nonrecyclables at great taxpayer expense,” she says. “And then what happened is when all the plastics were shipped to China, China said, 'Hey, stop sending us all of your waste. These are not really recyclable.' ”

"Overall in the U.S., our plastic recycling rate peaked in 2014 at 9.5%."

Sharon Lerner

Now that China isn’t taking Americans’ plastic, it’s piling up at recycling facilities and going to poor countries that also don’t have the means to recycle some of those plastics, Lerner says.

Instead of putting all of our focus into recycling, Enck says, one solution is to be more mindful consumers and try to buy less plastic.

“We can't recycle our way out of this problem,” she says. “We have to buy less plastic, and we need American and other businesses to make less plastic. There are alternatives, and I want to emphasize even the most careful consumer has a hard time avoiding plastics.”

So if recycling plastic is such a farce, why have we been doing it all these years? Lerner says going back to the 1970s, there have been efforts by the plastic industry to make recycling look good for the planet.

“There are a lot of plastic industry efforts to sort of boost the image of plastic and of recycling that are targeting kids,” she says. “And one of them that I write about was a contest for the best plastic bag receptacle and these were things that you could use to collect plastic bags.”

It was a heartwarming story, Lerner says, until she discovered who was behind the contest.

“That contest was sponsored by A Bag's Life, which is a project of a group called the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which is a lobbying group that actually fights against efforts to restrict plastic,” she says.

Consumers can also encourage businesses to use less plastic in their packaging by writing to stores where they shop, Enck says, adding that putting pressure at the local level is the most effective way to bring change.

“The political strength of the plastics lobby is so immense that it's very, very hard to get anything significant through at the state level, and I just can't imagine in this political climate getting anything good at the federal level,” Enck says. “So we've got to really work from the bottom up.”

Enck’s Tips for Recycling and Avoiding Plastic

  1. Recycle paper, metal, glass and cardboard. Only recycle plastics with No. 1, No. 2 or No. 5 on the bottom of the container — these types are truly recyclable. 
  2. Throw out Tupperware and plastic takeout containers, and replace with Pyrex or other glass containers. When you reheat food in the microwave in a plastic container, chemicals in the plastic can leach out into your food. 
  3. Avoid black plastic altogether — it’s made from recycled electronic waste. If you have black plastic, throw it out — it can’t be recycled again. 

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on September 20, 2019.


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Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.


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Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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