Billions of tons of plastic are produced every year, but how much actually gets recycled? Here’s what happens to your recycled materials and how much actually gets recycled.
Not all plastics are created equal, and a lot of plastics aren’t recyclable. Plastic is used in essential goods, including electronics and medical equipment. Certain plastics are also too frail to be recycled, meaning they will find their way to landfills. Almost all general use plastics can and should be recycled, but most aren’t. According to a 2021 study, only 9% of plastics are recycled, leaving 91% sitting in landfills. Additionally, many plastics that are recycled suffer downcycling, which degrades their build quality making them less desirable to recycle for consumer products. Ultimately, as a global community we need to move away from plastic goods.
Other materials like paper and metals are frequently recycled. Unlike plastic, paper is much easier to recycle and repurpose. Newspapers have been recycled on a regular basis for decades. They are shipped to mills for recycling and can be repurposed into cardboard or pulp to produce more newspapers. Office paper, magazine paper, and cardboard are also sent to mills throughout the country to either produce more paper or be repurposed into something else like housing insulation. Because of the durability of metal, metal does not have the issue of degradation after repeated recycling and could be as good as virgin metal. That’s why kitchen appliances and old automobiles are usually recycled in the manufacturing of new products. Recycling metal has plenty of sustainability benefits as well. Metal production requires a large amount of energy and mining, which can be damaging to the environment.
While the recycling of metals and paper can be very beneficial both economically and environmentally, there still lingers an issue with plastics. Producing new plastic remains cheaper than recycling older plastic As such, it is recommended that you reuse as often as possible as well as reduce overall consumption of plastic products. This is why the order is “reduce, reuse, recycle”. While recycling should be practiced, it should be the last thing consumers do because it is the least sustainable of the three behaviors when it comes to plastic. Reducing your carbon footprint starts by weaning off plastic in your daily routine.