America loves plastic. It’s cheap, lightweight, and incredibly versatile. It keeps food fresh for longer and hospitals sterile, packages nearly all the products we purchase, and is even woven into our clothes. The modern age is a plastic age, and modernity requires a lot of plastic. Globally, the world produces 353 million metric tons — nearly five times the weight of the moon — of new plastic every single year.
How do consumers justify using so much plastic? For many Americans, the knowledge that their household plastic waste will be recycled puts their mind at ease. Many people dutifully save, sort, and toss our plastic into the appropriate cans, side-eyeing the rare stranger who puts a plastic water bottle in the trash rather than the recycling bin. They were taught from an early age to “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but nearly all of society’s emphasis is on recycling. Today, 85% of Americans believe that their plastic waste is recycled and say that they would be upset to find out that it isn’t.
Sadly, they’re living in a fairytale. It turns out that only 8.7% of plastic is recycled; the other 91% is incinerated, littered, or tossed in a landfill. Much of that plastic waste was dutifully thrown in a recycling bin, but never made it through the recycling process because the vast majority of plastic isn’t technologically or economically recyclable.
It turns out that only 8.7% of plastic is recycled; the other 91% is incinerated, littered, or tossed in a landfill.