You feel good when drop your plastic bottles into that recycling bin, knowing that they'll be processed into new bottles, or maybe fleece jackets or some other useful things.
Increasingly, though, such plastic is creating problems, and as much as 70% of it may be discarded as unrecyclable, according to a new series of investigative articles by Guardian US, the US website of the British daily newspaper The Guardian.
"Only 9% of plastic has ever been recycled," Guardian US says, "and today the recycling system is breaking down. Plastic is being landfilled, burned, or dispatched to developing nations, where it is probably being disposed of improperly, to the detriment of people who can least afford to deal with the consequences. Plastic waste and microplastics are found everywhere from whales' stomachs to aquifers deep underground.
"America is a nation in a plastic-coated crisis."
The "United States of Plastic" series kicked off this week; you can read it starting here. It will continue through the rest of this year. Here are some of the findings so far:
- The US sends 1 million tons of plastic waste overseas every year.
- Since China stopped accepting all but the cleanest plastic in late 2017, most US plastic recycling has been redirected to "some of the world's poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation."
- Experts estimate that 20% to 70% of plastic sent to recycling facilities around the world is discarded because it's unusable.
- For some countries, such as Turkey, accepting US plastic waste has disrupted efforts to handle their own waste.
- Plastic recycling operates on thin economic margins. Processed pellets of recycled plastic, ready to be turned into new plastic goods, can cost as much as $800 a ton. Similar virgin plastic, which is often higher in quality, costs just $900 to $1,000 a ton.
- A treaty signed last month by 187 countries will give nations the power to block shipments of contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable waste that today goes to unregulated private enterprises in those countries. Its provisions go into effect in a year. The United States did not sign the treaty, but countries that did will be able to stop US shipments if they choose.
- Coffee cups, cup lids, clamshell food containers, and plastic bags are usually not recyclable. Grocery store-style bags frequently jam sorting machines at recyling centers. They shouldn't even be used to bag legitimate recyclables or line recycling bins.
- The triangular "chasing arrows" recycling symbol doesn't really indicate whether something is recyclable or made from recyclable materials. It's in the public domain, so anyone can use it without restrictions. Mitch Hedlund of Recycle Across America says it's "essentially clip art."