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Can the ‘myth’ of plastic recycling ever become a reality?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

For decades, recycling has been championed by businesses and environmental groups alike as a critical way to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and the oceans.

When it comes to plastics, however, the common belief that items in the recycling bin will end up being repurposed down the line is rarely borne out. Only about 5% of the 51 million tons of plastic waste produced by American households in 2021 was recycled domestically, according to a new study conducted by the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace. The rest is sent to landfills, incinerated or shipped overseas, where its ultimate fate can be hard to track.

Greenpeace’s findings are consistent with a wide range of research that has led many experts to argue that the environmental promise of plastic recycling, which has been promoted by plastic-producing companies for years, is essentially “a myth.”

Compared to materials like metal, paper and glass, plastics are much more complicated and less economical to recycle. They come in a wide variety of chemical compositions — some that can’t be processed at most recycling facilities and others that can’t be recycled at all. But even when recyclable plastics make their way to places that have the capacity to repurpose them, those items often still end up in landfills. That’s because it’s frequently cheaper for companies to create new plastic than it is to recycle old plastic.

Humans produce an estimated 400 million metric tons of plastic waste every year. Though plastics have many important uses, they have become a major environmental and health burden that is forecast to become even more severe with plastic production rates expected to increase dramatically in the coming decades. Discarded plastic has disrupted ecosystems around the world and caused serious harm to wildlife, especially in the oceans. Plastic waste can also break down into tiny particles that wind up in our food, water and air. Scientists are only beginning to understand the long-term impacts these microplastics have on human health.

Why there’s debate

In recent years, a variety of ideas have been put forward in hopes that the plastic recycling myth might become a reality.

A huge amount of research has been put into technological solutions that could make reprocessing plastics easier and more cost-effective. Many companies in the plastics industry have invested in a process called advanced recycling that uses chemical reactions to break down tough-to-recycle plastics and turn them into fuel or material for more plastic products. But skeptics say advanced recycling, even if it is proven to be viable, isn’t the answer because the process releases a significant amount of climate-warming emissions. Some scientists have made progress with cleaner methods of breaking down plastics, including plastic-munching bacteria and worms.

Some left-leaning lawmakers and political groups have called for policies aimed at shifting the burden of plastic recycling onto the companies that produce the material in the first place. California, for example, passed a law earlier this year that will require manufacturers — rather than taxpayers — to foot the bill for recycling infrastructure and collection. The goal of California’s law, along with similar legislation in a handful of other states, is to help fund more recycling plants while also creating a financial incentive for companies to make their products easier to recycle or reduce the amount of plastic they use altogether.

But environmental groups like Greenpeace argue that wherever advances are made, recycling will never be the solution. “We cannot recycle our way out of this problem,” the World Wildlife Fund wrote in a recent report. Instead, these groups call for new laws to limit the amount of plastic that is produced and to incentivize companies to use more sustainable materials.


The dream of plastic recycling will never be a reality

“Recycling is a flailing, failing system — and yet it is still touted as plastics’ panacea. No end-of-the-pipe fix can manage mass plastics’ volume, complex toxicity, or legacy of pollution, and the industry’s long-standing infractions against human health and rights.” — Rebecca Altman, Atlantic

The recycling burden should fall on plastic producers, not individuals

“Recycling also puts the responsibility on us. We feel guilty if we forget to take a bag to the supermarket and buy a new one. We chastise those who put things in the wrong bin or don’t realise many coffee cups are not disposable. The truth is, this isn’t our fault. The blame for the plastic epidemic lies with the food manufacturers and major retailers.” — Stephen Jardine, Scotsman

Natural solutions for breaking down plastics could be a game changer

“Plastic has become so enmeshed in our ecosystem that bacteria have evolved to digest it. Oddly enough, those bugs might now offer a ray of hope. … But this is likely just a beginning. The greater hope for big breakthroughs in recycling chemistry comes from our current spectacular ignorance of the microbiology of the seas, and the genomics and computing technology now gearing up to change that.” — Mark Buchanan, Bloomberg

Advanced recycling isn’t the answer

“There is no doubt the United States is experiencing a plastic waste crisis, and innovation should be encouraged. But proposals that will incentivize plastic production should be approached with skepticism. What the world needs now is not more plastic.” — Sarah J. Morath, The Hill

Advanced recycling should be given a chance to succeed

“[Advanced] recycling offers the promise of rebuilding the molecule chains that are broken down with heat, as well as the possibility of converting plastics into fuels and other compounds. Whether some of the newer chemical recycling proposals will actually succeed is a question.” — Samantha Wohlfeil, Grist

Scientific breakthroughs really can solve the plastics crisis

“The good news is that there are some promising technical solutions for making plastics infinitely recyclable on the horizon. … Of course, these specific new technologies for infinitely recyclable plastics may not take hold, but with respect to human ingenuity, never say never.” — Ronald Bailey, Reason

Governments can change the economic incentives around plastic

“A virgin plastics tax would encourage businesses and consumers to substitute more environmentally friendly alternatives and boost the recycling industry without direct subsidies. …

The overwhelming flow of plastic into the ocean requires an assertive and smart response. Taxing virgin plastics ticks both boxes.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Until potential technologies come to fruition, the only real path is to reduce plastic use

“While we await a circular economy to repurpose products and creative solutions like advanced recycling and better biodegradable technology, we, as consumers, must drive innovation through our selective and collective purchasing power. Unless all of us — from individuals to industry — commit to reducing and reusing, plastic waste will devastate our planet. Recycling alone is not a viable solution.” — Wynne Armand, Miami Herald

Our current system can work with proper investment and coordination

“Plastic recycling is working, and in coming years it’ll play an important role in boosting a more sustainable economy and planet. And that’s no myth.” — Adam Minter, Bloomberg

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images