Do you even have to bother throwing plastic in the recycling bin?

Do you even have to bother throwing plastic in the recycling bin?

Thank you for carefully rinsing, sorting and recycling your plastic containers – but plastic is waste and trying to recycle it is futile, Greenpeace said in late October. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have been warning for years against the “greenwashing” of plastic recycling by the oil and chemical industry, while these chemical companies insist that we are just on the cusp of a major breakthrough that will make recycling and reusing plastics feasible and profitable. efficient.

Consumers, meanwhile, are stuck in the middle. Is plastic recycling just a feel-good comedy we should stop playing, or is there a point in keeping the flow of plastic recycling going?

What does the new Greenpeace report say?

US households produced about 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, and only 2.4 million tons were recycled, Greenpeace USA said in its report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again.” This means that only around 5-6% of US plastic waste is recycled, down from a peak of 9.5% in 2014 and 8.7% in 2018, before China stopped accepting US plastic waste for recycling, burning or dumping.

Some plastics are recycled at higher rates. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) #1, commonly used for bottled beverages, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) #2, used for milk jugs and shampoo and detergent bottles, are recycled at rates by 20.9% and 10.3%, respectively, says Greenpeace. But all other types of plastic fall below 5%.

“The data is clear: in practice, most plastics are simply not recyclable,” said Lisa Ramsden, plastics campaign manager at Greenpeace USA, in a statement. “More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage is being recycled. The crisis is only getting worse and, without radical change, will continue to get worse as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050. .”

So no plastic is recyclable?

You can recycle most plastics, but the current process takes a lot of energy, produces pollutants, and costs more to turn into something reusable than just using virgin plastic. And recycling 5% of American plastic is probably better than recycling zero percent.

What Greenpeace means when it says that plastic is not recyclable is that to meet the definition of recyclable used by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Initiative (EMF NPE), an item must have a recycling rate of at least 30%. Even the most recyclable type of plastic does not meet this threshold in the United States

The Federal Trade Commission’s “green guide” uses a different measure of recyclability, where you can only label something “recyclable” if 60% of consumers have access to a recycling facility capable of recycling the item, The edge reports. According to this definition, PET and HDPE bottles and jugs are considered recyclable. Yogurt containers, plastic cups, plastic plates and other everyday products don’t come close to that 60% threshold, however, and “it’s not because people have access to recycling facilities PET and HDPE that these products are actually recycled”. “, The edge Remarks.

So what happens to the plastic we throw in the recycling bin?

“It does not go to a recycling facility and is not recycled,” Trent Carpenter, general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, told NPR News. “It goes to a recycling facility and is buried elsewhere because [you] I can’t do anything with this material. Plastic waste is also sometimes burned, releasing toxic fumes, and some of it ends up in the ocean, where it degrades and removes microplastic particles that appear in fish, birds and humans. .

“We had to re-educate individuals that a lot of this material ends up in a landfill,” and people didn’t want to hear it, Carpenter added. “Politically, it’s easier to just say ‘God, we’re going to take it all and think we can recycle it’ and then look the other way,” but “that’s the best of greenwashing.”

Some is recycled and reused, of course. The National Association for PET Container Resources said 21% of plastic bottles collected for recycling in 2017 were turned into new things, for example – although that was also before China stopped using plastic American.

Could plastic become virtually recyclable?

The plastics industry keeps saying yes. “What we’re trying to do is really create a circular economy for plastics, because we think that’s the most viable option to keep plastic out of the environment,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council trade group. recount The Associated Press. “I think we are on the cusp of a sustainability revolution where circularity will be the centerpiece,” he added. “And innovative technologies like advanced recycling will be what makes this possible.”

The “advanced recycling” he refers to is also called chemical recycling, and some large plastic companies are investing significant resources in building large plastic recycling plants. “The main chemical recycling technologies use pyrolysis, gasification or depolymerization”, PA reports. “US plastic producers have said they will recycle or recover all plastic packaging used in the United States by 2040.”

“Our mission is to solve plastic pollution,” said Jeremy DeBenedictis, president of Alterra Energy, which operates the largest recycling plant in the United States, in Akron, Ohio. “It’s not just a slogan. We all really want to solve plastic pollution.” Alterra turns approximately 75% of its plastic waste into a synthetic oil solution that can be shipped to petrochemical plants to make new plastic products, while 15% is turned into a complete solution to run the process.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin announced the creation of a new enzyme earlier this year that breaks down PET plastic in as little as 48 hours, dissolving “everything from water bottles to clamshell packaging for foods,” graduate student Daniel Acosta told WSB Atlanta. TV. The new enzyme, FAST PETase, was created using artificial intelligence.

The FAST PETase enzyme is still in the laboratory test phase. “We’re trying to go as fast as we can, and I think we’ll have significant progress in transitioning to things like landfills in about a year,” said Andrew Ellington, professor of molecular biosciences at UT, at WSB TV. DeBenedictis said he also licenses Alterra’s technology because it’s “the best way to have the fastest impact on the world.”

Is plastic reduction a realistic possibility?

This is the only realistic possibility, argues Greenpeace. “The real solution is to move to reuse and refill systems,” said Greenpeace’s Ramsden. “It’s not really a new concept – that’s how the milkman was, that’s how Coca-Cola got its drinks to people. They drank their drink, made the glass bottle, and it was disinfected and reused.

Huge plastic users — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever — should do so voluntarily, or they may be forced to do so, Ramsden said. “We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It is time for corporations to turn off the plastic tap. Instead of continuing to whitewash and mislead the American public, the industry should stand on the right side of history in November and support an ambitious global Plastics Treaty that will finally end the age of plastic by drastically reducing production and increasing refilling and reuse.”

At the same time, plastic has undergone an “extraordinary evolution as a material” since it was symbolically pilloried in Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic. The graduationas John Seabrook wrote in the new yorker in 2010, near the peak of plastic recycling, according to Greenpeace.

“In the film, ‘plastic’ is understood as a cheap, sterile, ugly and meaningless way of life, boring almost by definition – the embodiment of everything about the values ​​of the older generation that seems repulsive to young Benjamin,” Seabrook wrote. “Plastics! What a joke! How uncool! Forty-three years later, Mr. McGuire’s advice doesn’t sound so cool.” Plastics “are moving more and more into art and design, not to mention medicine,” and “if you imagine a world in which millions of people have 3D printers on their desks that they can download drawings on the Internet and print products, then a lot of things will be made of plastic.”

Kate O’Neill, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and author of the book Wastehas come to believe that chemical recycling must be part of the solution to the global plastics crisis, even if saying so will “piss off environmentalists”, she said. PA. “With some of these big issues,” O’Neill said, “we can’t rule anything out.”

Is it worth throwing plastic in the recycling bin, then?

Clearly, “for a long time there has been no difference between separating, rinsing and recycling that plastic juice bottle and simply throwing it away with the rest of your household trash,” writes Tom Wrobleski at Staten Island Advance. “In fact, it’s probably best to put the bottle in the kitchen trash bag, because at least that way it’s contained and will be buried.”

The harsh reality is that “plastic bottles and containers are everywhere” and “if we can’t recycle them, we’re going to have to find something else,” adds Wrobleski. “Being green turns out to have been a lot harder than they told us.”

“I know it might sound demoralizing because it might seem like recycling is pointless,” John Oliver said in a Last week tonight segment on plastics in 2021. “But it is important to know that this is not the case. We absolutely must continue to recycle paper, cardboard and aluminum – and even the recycling of plastic, even if it can be 90% more useless than you thought, can still have modest environmental benefits, if you sort the right kinds of plastics in your recycling bin.

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