“Plastic recycling does not work and will never work,” wrote former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck and chemical engineer Jan Dell in a recent Atlantic article.
The writers note that the U.S. recycling rate for post-consumer plastic waste in 2021 was about 5 percent, and that past recycling rates have included plastic waste that was shipped to China and mostly left un-recycled.
Compare this with the U.S.’s high recycling rate of paper, 68 percent, and the problem becomes clear.
The difficulty of plastics recycling has to do with the material itself, the authors write.
“There are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics,” they write. “They all include different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing.”
“Collecting, sorting, transporting, and reprocessing plastic waste is exorbitantly expensive,” the authors write.
A single fast-food mail can contain many different types of plastics being used in various bags, cups, lids, containers, and cutlery, all of which can’t be recycled together.
Plastics can also contain or absorb toxins that are either unsafe for recycling into food-grade packaging or that are released into the atmosphere when burned, harming nearby ecosystems and communities.
Despite all this, the plastic industry has perpetuated the “myth” that plastics are recyclable, the authors write, in order to continue selling the material without having to take accountability for the waste it creates.
The authors suggest that communities pass legislation to reduce the use of single-use plastics, preferring reusable bottles and food ware in order to reduce waste.
“And we should all keep recycling our paper, boxes, cans, and glass, because that actually works,” the authors added.
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