What Happens to Plastic After You Put It In Your Recycle Bin?
by Caitlin Reid
Did you know six times more plastic gets incinerated than gets recycled? (1) With recent changes to foreign policy, the U.S. is in the midst of a recycling crisis; plastic is polluting our country and the countries where we send our waste.
You may be imagining all those plastic bottles and to-go containers you’ve tossed in your home recycling bin over the past year, thinking, “but I recycled them, I swear.” The reality is that recycled plastics may not take the journey you assume once they leave your home.
What happens to recycled plastic?
Recology’s CEO wrote in a 2018 op-ed, “The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic — and too many different types of plastics being produced; and there exist few if any, viable end markets for the material.” (2) So where does it go?
1. Some recycled plastics are shipped offshore.
With few buyers for recycled materials, the U.S. ships containers of recycled plastic to developing countries. In 2018, it was enough to fill 68,000 shipping containers (3). In 2019, we sent an estimated 225 shipping containers of plastic daily (12) to countries with already poor waste management.
These countries include Laos, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Senegal where labor is cheap and environmental regulation is lacking (3). Unfortunately, these countries can’t accommodate 70% of their waste, let alone what’s shipped in from the U.S. (3). It might be why nearly 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year (9).
To help countries escape from this waste overload, the United Nations created the Basel Convention preventing first-world countries from shipping waste to less wealthy nations. Nearly all the world’s developing nations signed the deal, except the U.S. (5).
2. Some plastics in your recycle bin are made into new products — but not all.
You may think your fried rice container is getting recycled, but in reality, it may not. Greenpeace researched recycling in the USA in 2020, surveying 367 recycling recovery facilities. Here are some key findings:
- PET bottles and HDPE plastic bottles are generally the only types of plastic that are recyclable at most facilities in the US. These products can be made into everything from new bottles to clothing and industrial strapping.
- None of the recycling plants can process coffee pods.
- Only 15% of recycling plants accept plastic clamshell food containers.
- Very few plants could process plates, cups, bags and trays.
Know that the number on your plastic container matters. But its meaning has changed. Plastics with numbers 3 through 7 were previously accepted (largely because the U.S. could send them to China, where they were incinerated for fuel). Since China no longer accepts recycled waste from the U.S., these items are no longer truly recyclable.
They’re crowding recycling plants, being incinerated, buried in landfills or exported to developing nations. The issue caught the attention of Greenpeace, which has asked large companies such as Nestle, Walmart and Unilever to stop labeling plastics 3 through 7 as recyclable, or they’ll file a complaint with the FTC. (1)
3. Some recycled plastics are deemed contaminated and can’t be processed.
Contamination of curbside recycling changes the path of plastics after they leave your home and can ultimately prevent it from being recycled. While consumers love the ease of single-stream recycling (throwing all recyclables into one bin), it leads to an average of one-quarter becoming contaminated (1).
Contamination means either:
- The wrong items are placed in the recycling bin, such as propane tanks or garden hoses.
- The correct items are recycled in the wrong way — for example, containers with food in them or recyclables inside plastic garbage bags.
Anyone wishing to recycle should understand what is on the ‘no’ list because contaminants can hinder the recycling process. It takes time to clear the contaminants which often, isn’t worth the time and cost. In these cases, the entire batch is usually incinerated.
To make it easier for everyone, The Recycling Partnership defined five common contaminant themes:
- Film plastic (e.g. cling wrap or cling film bags)
- Plastic garbage bags (including garbage that shouldn’t be in the recycle bin)
- Tanglers (cords, clothes and hoses)
- Hazardous materials (needles or propane tanks)
- Materials that downgrade recyclables and clog the system (liquids, food and diapers)
Why is so few plastic recycling getting recycled?
Overall, the recycling crisis has occurred because there’s too much plastic. In addition to the contamination problem, it doesn’t help that new plastic is now cheaper for brands to purchase than recycled plastic (1).
Additionally, because China is no longer accepting many previously recyclable types of plastic, the U.S. now faces the increasingly important task of figuring out how to handle and reduce the use of these plastics. In the meantime, many unknowing consumers toss them in their bins with good intentions, which ultimately complicates operations at recycling centers that don’t know what to do with them.
Reducing Plastic Use is the Best Answer
There is one seemingly simple solution: use less plastic. While contamination education can help consumers, the main message is to use less. “Most people have no idea that most plastic doesn’t get recycled,” says John Hocevar, the Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA, to The Guardian (3). “Even though they are buying something that they only use for a few seconds before putting it in the recycling bin, they think it’s OK because they believe it is being recycled.” He references a study that found just 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled (6).
Instead of buying recyclable items, look for reusable and sustainable options. Shopping at refillable marketplaces, using reusable coffee cups, shopping at farmer’s markets and buying sustainable brands goes a long way.
- Columbia Climate School - Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?.
- San Francisco Chronicle: It is time to cut use of plastics
- The Guardian: Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America's dirty secret.
- Recycle and Recover Plastics: What Plastics Can Become.
- Basel Convention International: http://www.basel.int/
- United Nations Environment: Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution—it's time for change!
- Eco Aid: America’s 'recycled' plastic waste is clogging landfills, survey finds
- The Guardian: Americans' plastic recycling is dumped in landfills, investigation shows
- IUCN - Marine Plastics
- Recycling Today - The heavy toll of contamination
- Plastic Pollution Coalition - Six Times More Plastic Waste is Burned in U.S. than is Recycled
- Plastic Pollution Coalition - No 'Away': Why is the U.S. Still Offshoring Plastic Waste Around the World?