What does "recyclable" mean to you? Most of us hope that, when we put a plastic container into the recycling bin, it will eventually be turned into some kind of new and useful product that otherwise would have been made from non-recycled material.
In other words, we believe we're reducing trash saving resources, and helping the economy.
Unfortunately, when it comes to "recyclable" plastic, the truth is far different. Most plastic is simply not getting recycled, and that little triangular "chasing arrows" symbol on the bottoms of plastic containers doesn't mean what you think it does.
The "chasing arrows" symbol doesn't mean something is recyclable. It's actually just an identification code that conveys what type of plastic something is made of (that's the little number inside the triangle). But most consumers see the "chasing arrows" and assume that means the item is recyclable, when much of the time it is not.
The fact is that even types of plastic that are technically recyclable typically do not actually end up getting recycled. Plastics labeled with a PET No. 1 symbol (e.g. water or soda bottles) or a HDPE No. 2 symbol (e.g. milk jugs or shampoo bottles) are sometimes recycled.
But a 2017 report by a plastics industry trade group stated that only about 21% of PET plastic that's collected for recycling is actually turned into new things. A 2022 report by Greenpeace confirms this, and estimates that the reprocessing capacity for HDPE plastic is even lower -- about 10%.
As for Nos. 3 through 7, those types of plastic are hardly ever recycled at all. Those salsa tubs, coffee cup lids, takeout containers and cold drink cups are most likely never going to get recycled, no matter what the number is inside the triangle.
In 2021, the state of California passed a law requiring a study of which materials actually get recycled in the state, and prohibiting the use of the "chasing arrows" symbol on any products that don't pass muster. And earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requested the Federal Trade Commission to require products and packaging to show that there's actually a "strong end market" to recycle that material before allowing manufacturers to use the symbol.
The problem is that plastic is inherently difficult to recycle. According to experts, there's really no way to make plastic recyclable at scale. With so many different types of plastic out there, the first thing that would-be recyclers have to do is sort through giant piles of plastic to separate out each different type — a monumental and expensive job.
The recycling process itself is also complex and expensive. In the end, simply manufacturing new plastic is generally the cheapest solution for the industry. According to Greenpeace, "After three decades and billions of dollars of taxpayer spending, the excuse offered by the American Chemistry Council that plastic recycling is still 'in its infancy' can now be seen for the delaying tactic that it is."
Plastic recycling also frequently creates microplastics that end up in the environment. The process to melt down or otherwise reprocess plastic can also result in toxic emissions. In other words, far from helping the environment by recycling plastic, in many ways we're actually hurting it.
What happens to all that plastic we thought we were recycling? In many cases, it simply gets dumped into landfills or incinerated. For decades, the United States has shipped a lot of plastic waste overseas, mostly to China, where much of it was burned in the process of extracting usable material.
In 2018 China announced a ban on this plastic waste trade, partly because of the air pollution created by burning so much plastic. The scrap industry is now shipping the plastic waste to other countries instead. And of course, a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean, such as in the Pacific Garbage Patch.
But the desire to believe that there is somehow a way to recycle plastic is still leading many people to put all kinds of plastic — even materials that don't even have the "chasing arrows" symbol, like bags and plastic wrap — in their recycling bins out of a combination of hopefulness and reluctance to face reality.
This is sometimes called "wishcycling," as in "I wish this were recyclable, so I'm going to pretend that it is."
The result is that local recycling centers have a much harder job sorting through all the garbage that gets dumped into recycling bins, which makes recycling other materials like glass and aluminum less efficient and more costly.
What's the solution? You already know the answer — we all need to drastically reduce our consumption of plastic, especially single-use plastic. This won't be easy to do, since the plastics industry has spent decades transforming our society into one that depends on plastic.
Plastic gives us convenience, sanitation and cost savings — and it's ubiquitous, which makes it really hard to avoid. But the more we all work to be mindful of our consumer purchasing and, whenever possible, opt for non-plastic alternatives, the more we can make a difference.