Recycling Plastics Isn't Working

I was making my monthly trip to our town’s dump...er…Solid Waste Center, dropping off some recyclables and trash. The recyclables are the usual – paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastic. It was as I was offloading the huge container of plastics that I remembered reading a post about recycling, specifically about recycling plastic, and how it isn’t really worth it. Surprisingly, the article was on the NPR website (dated two years ago). It was the last thing I expected – an article telling everyone that plastic recycling isn’t worth it - from a heavily left-leaning media organization. As they stated, recycling plastic is practically impossible and the problem is getting worse.

The vast majority of plastic that people use, and in many cases put into blue recycling bins, is headed to landfills, or worse, according to a report from Greenpeace on the state of plastic recycling in the U.S.

The report cites separate data published...May [2022] which revealed that the amount of plastic actually turned into new things has fallen to new lows of around 5%. That number is expected to drop further as more plastic is produced.


Waste management experts say the problem with plastic is that it is expensive to collect and sort. There are now thousands of different types of plastic, and none of them can be melted down together. Plastic also degrades after one or two uses. Greenpeace found the more plastic is reused the more toxic it becomes.

New plastic, on the other hand, is cheap and easy to produce. The result is that plastic trash has few markets — a reality the public has not wanted to hear.

My town limits what plastics it does take in, that being the #1, #2, #5, and #7 plastics, and on top of that they can’t take any of those plastics if they are black in color as apparently the laser scanners used to determine the plastic type doesn’t work on black/dark brown plastics. Seeing the physical amount of plastic at our recycling center is mind boggling. About the only other recyclable material I see with that kind of volume is cardboard.

There is one plastic our town takes in that has a high recycling percentage, that being #6, also known as polystyrene or Styrofoam. Our town processes it on-site, reducing it from the solid foam we know to ‘ingots’ that are as hard as rock. The processing heats up the polystyrene and removes all of the air. The ingots are stacked on pallets and picked up once there are enough for a full truckload. Our town actually makes money from this operation. Our town also takes in polystyrene from a number of other towns in the state as it is the only one recycling polystyrene. So we make money from other towns’ Styrofoam as well.

Do we make anything from the other plastics collected at our recycling center? Yes, but not a lot. At least we haven’t had to pay to have the plastic hauled away. At least not yet. But that could change.

If the percentage of plastics actually being recycled keeps shrinking, then where does all that plastic actually go? Around here it likely ends up at our local trash-to-energy incinerator, burned to generate electricity.

What percentage of the #1, #2, #5, and #7 plastics our town collects are actually recycled? At the moment I have no idea. I have a feeling the answer to that will not be easy to determine, but if it is anything like that mentioned in the NPR piece then it’s less than 10%. The rest is incinerated to make electricity. That also means it is more expensive for that plastic to be collected rather than to be put into the regular trash and then burned like the rest of our trash in the trash-to-energy plant.

What about the rest of the recyclables like paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, and glass? Our town does pretty well with those materials, with one of them, glass, being recycled locally. This came about because the last glass recycling facility in the Northeast closed its doors years ago and glass became nothing more than trash. However, our town still collects it and crushes/grinds it to create gravel-like pieces of glass to be used as fill and aggregate for construction and road maintenance, saving the town a lot of money in gravel costs.

It is well past time for all of us to take another look at our preconceptions about recycling, and specifically plastic, to determine if it is worth the time, effort, or money to recycle plastic. If the numbers in the NPR piece are correct then it is a money losing proposition and does not help the environment as has been claimed. It might be time to admit recycling plastics doesn’t work and stop wasting time and money pretending that it does.