Environment Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work

tom_mai78101

The Helper Connoisseur / Ex-MineCraft Host
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Americans support recycling. We do too. But although some materials can be effectively recycled and safely made from recycled content, plastics cannot. Plastic recycling does not work and will never work. The United States in 2021 had a dismal recycling rate of about 5 percent for post-consumer plastic waste, down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014, when the U.S. exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China and counted it as recycled—even though much of it wasn’t.

Recycling in general can be an effective way to reclaim natural material resources. The U.S.’s high recycling rate of paper, 68 percent, proves this point. The problem with recycling plastic lies not with the concept or process but with the material itself.

The first problem is that there are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics. They all include different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles cannot be recycled with PET#1 clamshells, which are a different PET#1 material, and green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles (which is why South Korea has outlawed colored PET#1 bottles.) High-density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low-density polyethylene (LDPE#4), polypropylene (PP#5), and polystyrene (PS#6) all must be separated for recycling.

Just one fast-food meal can involve many different types of single-use plastic, including PET#1, HDPE#2, LDPE#4, PP#5, and PS#6 cups, lids, clamshells, trays, bags, and cutlery, which cannot be recycled together. This is one of several reasons why plastic fast-food service items cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.

Another problem is that the reprocessing of plastic waste—when possible at all—is wasteful. Plastic is flammable, and the risk of fires at plastic-recycling facilities affects neighboring communities—many of which are located in low-income communities or communities of color.

Unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert. Plastic products can include toxic additives and absorb chemicals, and are generally collected in curbside bins filled with possibly dangerous materials such as plastic pesticide containers. According to a report published by the Canadian government, toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging.

Yet another problem is that plastic recycling is simply not economical. Recycled plastic costs more than new plastic because collecting, sorting, transporting, and reprocessing plastic waste is exorbitantly expensive. The petrochemical industry is rapidly expanding, which will further lower the cost of new plastic.

 
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