Why Recycling Plastic Doesn’t Work


Since plastic was invented in 1907 and became part of our modern lives, its growth increased exponentially each year. This indestructible material is everywhere now. If you dive to the deepest location of Earth – the Mariana Trench which is 36.201 feet deep (11.034 meters), chances are you will find plastic.

We are producing over 300 million tons of plastic every year. Half this amount goes to single-use plastic. Think about plastic straws, plastic bags, or plastic cups, for instance. You use them once and then you throw them away. The problem is that those plastic straws, bags, and cups will be here still. Even when you won’t.

“But I Do Recycling. Isn’t That Enough?”

Not really. Taking our plastic to the recycling bin makes us feel like we are taking care of our planet. Therefore, we can buy more plastic products because afterward, we will recycle them as well. Right?

Well, it doesn’t work this way. Only 9% of global plastic is actually recycled. This means that the remaining 91% still exists somewhere, even if you put them in the bin. There are several different types of plastic, but only a few can gain a new life. From the few that can be recycled, they are limited to a certain number of times. Recycling is not a simple process and plastic materials cannot be recycled over and over again. As plastic contains long chains of polymers (a molecular structured substance made by several bonded units), for each time it gets recycled, the chain of polymers gets shorter. The final product is plastic with less quality. Most of us believe in recycling and rely on it for years, but recycling is far beyond from being the solution to our plastic nightmare.

Recycling Is a Mirage

Most recycling facilities don’t even separate the different types of plastics from each other, which consequently makes the process less efficient. Knowing exactly which types of plastic can be recycled is sometimes confusing. Some items can be recycled while others cannot, and that differs from place to place.

Even if consumers make the commitment to check and acquire the know-how about which plastic is safe and recyclable, the information we get is still ambiguous and time-consuming. Labels are unclear. We are supposed to find a symbol in every plastic product, telling us what it’s made of. By that magical symbol, we will know what-is-what and whether we should buy it or not.

The question is, how many people will look for these labels? Especially, if there are no boards or signs with this information in the local markets, big supermarkets, or grocery stores. Moreover, if there are types of plastic that are not safe and cannot be recycled at all, why are they produced in the first place?


Dirty Plastic Is Not Recyclable

It takes a long way to make recycling a proper solution. Firstly, you have to wash your plastic items before going to the recycling bin. Otherwise, they are considered as contaminated waste. Lack of cleaning and mixing materials leads to contamination. Contaminated products cannot go through the recycling process. Until January 2018, China accepted large amounts of plastic from around the globe, but due to contaminated plastic products, this has changed, and China no longer takes other countries’ waste, unless they are 99.5% cleaned.

Such regulation created more pressure within hundreds of U.S. cities such as San Diego, New York, Deltona in Florida, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Take Deltona as an example, receiving $39.000 for its recyclables before China’s announcement. Now the scenario changed completely, the cost of recycling almost duplicated and no more money from selling plastic entered in their pockets. Without China, the markets left to take in most of our waste are Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. And they are not happy to be the World’s dumping ground.

The Real Recycling Cost

Additionally, most plastic going to recycling still finds its way into the trash. In several rural areas, trucks are going half a kilometer between houses, picking up recyclables. Once they calculate the emissions associated with picking up products, sorting them in machines and sending it to markets, it’s not difficult to imagine that it’s sometimes better to send recycling to the dump. And maybe we cannot blame them – Imagine how much electricity, water, transportation, and carbon emissions are necessary to recycle our plastic. There is not enough profit to use recycled products and to make new products from used plastic. All these issues make it clear that recycling is not suitable for our environment, and it surely doesn’t help the economy. It’s simply cheaper to send our plastic to landfills.

What Should We Do, Instead

Recycling was invented by the plastic industry in the first place. Our entire society was told (and we believed) that this is the solution to our consumer behavior.

Now that we know this, we must rapidly think about other strategies that will let us keep our head above the surface. A waste-free future looks doubtful if this doesn’t change and while recycling is still (a bit) better than just throwing plastic away, there are better ways to deal with the problem.

— Reduce and Reuse.


Reduce and Reuse are the two most essential R’s. For some reason, recycling gets the most attention. This could be because it doesn’t require us to change important habits. Like shifting what items we purchase in the first place, so we avoid excessive packaging and disposable items.

A circular economy is also the right path to follow. It is based on products and services with close loops or “cycles.” In other words, it aims to retain as much value as possible of products, parts, and materials. This results in a system that allows for the optimal reuse, long life, remanufacturing, and recycling of products and materials.

You can put in practice a circular economy by simply using a glass jar from your kitchen, and use it to take your smoothie or coffee to work. Later on, you can wash and use that same glass jar to buy and store some rice or pasta from the bulk bin store. This is just one example, but it is how we can control our plastic waste and decrease the production of new stuff to a bare minimum.

Which is precisely what the World needs.