As a society, we’ve fixated on recycling like its our salvation. There are blue bins in almost every school, office building, and home in America, stationed there for you to toss your used plastic water bottle into (when you remember to, of course). “It’s reassuring to see positive attitudes toward recycling growing,” said Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council of North America and vice president, environment, for Tetra Pak Americas. “So many companies and organizations have been coming together to make recycling more convenient, efficient and simple in our country, and this affirms that it is having a strong impact.”
That’s great. But nobody really gives a thought to what happens after you toss that water bottle in the recycling bin. Which is unfortunate, because the reality is rather frightening.
A miniscule 9% of the things sent to recycling facilities actually gets recycled. This is because recycling is not some simple process where your water bottle is sent to a factory and magically gets turned into a raincoat. Recycling is a billion dollar industry, and just like any other business, it’s products are only as valuable as the market for them.
And the market for recycling is not a very profitable one. Once it's placed in the blue bin, your recycling gets sent to a factory where it is processed, bailed, and put on the market. This is a very costly process, which in turn hikes up the price of recycled plastic. It’s much cheaper for big businesses to buy virgin plastic, so much of the recycled material never actually gets recycled. Instead, it's sold at a loss to other countries. In 2011, plastic trash was America’s primary export to China. But now, even that isn't an option.
So, if companies in America aren't buying your recycling and China is no longer accepting it, where does it go?
Each year, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean. 5Gyres, a nonprofit organization in special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, led research that found there is an estimated 5.25 trillion particles of “plastic smog” weighing in at 270,000 tons in our oceans worldwide. Its estimated that by 2040, there will be more particles of microplastic in the ocean than fish. We are quite literally drowning in plastic.
I’m not saying we should stop recycling altogether. But more Americans need to be aware that recycling is probably the least “environmentally friendly” thing you can do for the environment.
There are better, more effective solutions out there. And fortunately for us, the simplest answer to our plastic problem lies in the first two instructions of that phrase: “Reduce" and “Reuse.”
By reducing our plastic consumption, and reusing the things we already have, we can actually make a difference in our environment.