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.
Enck’s Tips for Recycling and Avoiding Plastic
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.