Plastic Recycling: Learn How it Works

April 22, 2019

The Story

Life in plastic. It's (not so) fantastic.

You can brush my hair...

Yes, you know the rest. But here’s what we came to talk about: the world has a plastic problem. Everyday life has become increasingly reliant on single-use plastic aka the kind that’s used once then tossed. It’s really good at things like holding our iced coffee, wrapping up leftovers, and packaging pretty much anything. That’s because it’s basically indestructible. This is where the problem comes in.

What do you mean?

It’s estimated that only 9% of the world’s plastic has ever been recycled. This is largely because of things like poor waste management, especially in developing countries. What’s not recycled ends up getting incinerated or sitting in landfills or the ocean for years (and years and years and years). While it's hanging out, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces (hi, microplastics), contaminating marine life (see: that viral video of marine biologists pulling a straw out of a sea turtle’s nostril), and even entering our food stream.

Gross. Why is this happening?

Like we said, poor waste management. But existing waste management can also get confusing. Every community recycles a bit differently and it can be difficult to keep up with what is and isn’t recyclable. Your coffee cup lid is, the cup might not be. So even if people try their best (looking at you, aspirational recyclers), a lot of recycling can end up contaminated with food or other things that make it very difficult to turn into reusable material.


Which brings us to the next reason. Recycling is a business. After throwing things in those blue bins, recyclables go to recovery facilities to be sorted, cleaned, and processed into new materials. Companies buy those recycled materials to make and sell new products. Contaminated recycling makes this process harder to execute. Plus there’s China.


For years, countries including the US have sent a lot of their waste to China, where it’s cheaper to process it into other materials. But in 2017, China – the world’s largest polluter – said ‘enough’ and announced a ban on foreign garbage.

Sounds reasonable.

It means the country is no longer accepting two dozen types of materials, like certain plastics and paper. Climate experts say this is a positive move that’ll force other countries to figure out how to reduce their own waste. But in the meantime, without a market for the waste, a lot of US cities and counties have stopped recycling – either canceling or scaling back recycling programs, or simply sending it all to landfills instead.

What’s being done about this?

Cities, states, and countries have started taking action with bans on plastic bags, straws, and even microplastics found in cosmetics. There’s been some backlash. And at least one study that found bag bans...lead people to buy more plastic trash bags. Meanwhile, experts are also calling on the industry to make fundamental changes – like developing more biodegradable and easily recyclable plastics.

How can I help?

Reduce your use of plastics. For what you do use, make sure you’re recycling correctly. Get familiar with your local guidelines. Also: all plastic recycling has a number on it. This refers to the type of plastic the item is made of. Important, because not all plastic is created equally. And recyclers use these numbers to determine what they can and can’t give a second life.



Avoiding plastic altogether is really hard. But if plastic pollution continues to rise, it’s estimated that the ocean could contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050.PS: Want to continue to learn more about climate change, recycling, and the earth? We got you covered.

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