Plastic trash is polluting our environment. We are flooded with statistics about what this evasive material is doing to our oceans and wildlife. But we can’t become numb to the problem. Rather, the data should serve as a motivator, calling you to action.
Over 500 billion pounds of plastic is produced each year. To put that number into perspective: a blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, weighs less than one percent of that total. This staggering statistic should open our eyes to the urgent need of plastic recycling, innovation, and alternatives. If this issue remains ignored, it is projected that by 2050, 12 billion metric tons of plastic will end up in landfills.
Plastic is everywhere – literally
Not enough plastic is collected. Not enough plastic is recycled. It’s ending up everywhere now, even in the water we drink. Why? Because plastic can take 1,000 years to decompose in landfills. That bottle of water you just finished and tossed out can sit for up to 450 years before it breaks down, and our environment does not have the time to wait. The more we incorrectly dispose of plastic, the more likely it will be to drift to places it doesn’t belong:
- 70 percent of the plastic collected in the US goes straight into a landfill.
- An estimated 240,000 metric tons of plastic floats along the surfaces of our oceans, while another 8.5 million metric tons sink to the sea floor each year.
Recycling’s current state – a broken system
Recycling plastic today ends up being difficult because the process is so easy to corrupt. It’s very easy for plastic to become contaminated and then un-recyclable. Certain plastics, like straws and takeout containers, simply can’t get recycled because of the food particles still on them. Once they reach a recycling center, they get tossed into the trash where they go on to a landfill or worse yet, the ocean.
About 10 percent of all the plastic produced in the U.S. ever sees a second life as recycled materials. Within the United States, we also face an issue of capacity. Having outsourced our plastic recycling for so long to China, we don’t have the resources yet to take care of it on our own. Even if everyone put their plastics into the recycle bin properly, we couldn’t recycle it all.
Developing the domestic market for recycled plastics can make a dent in our waste, but this initiative will take years to reflect true improvement. We’ll need new technology for sorting and recovering, as well as new ideas on how to use this material.
Another element making plastic recycling a true challenge is that there are different types. Hard to recycle plastics include packing like plastic films and laminated plastics. A common way to get rid of them is to bury them, but adding to our landfills isn’t the answer, nor is it the only option.
Innovations in plastic recycling
New ways to use and recycle plastic waste are being developed and show promise. If we can reuse or repurpose the existing material we are able to reduce the overall volume in the world. Options like chemical recycling, also known as advanced recycling, uses specific chemicals to break down plastic waste into its valuable chemical components. Previously used plastics are broken down into their most basic chemical building blocks, helping to create new virgin plastics, chemicals, fuels, and other products. Through this process, less resources are used to create new products from the same source material.
We need to keep awareness up and empower individuals, businesses, communities and nations to be part of the solution by making smart and sustainable choices. Consumers vote with their wallets and awareness can make the difference between choosing to buy a case of water or one refillable bottle. Organizations like Plastic Free July help millions of people be part of the solution with a month long challenge to refuse single use plastics. On the business side, sustainability can sometimes derail profits, making it seemingly impossible to reduce plastic production. If supply chain is not an issue, businesses can make a positive impact through offset programs which mitigates overall plastic in the environment. History has proven that global impact starts by empowering individuals and business decision makers to form a movement of positive change.