Is Recycling Broken?

Recently a combination of whistle blowing and investigative journalism has revealed that the whole concept of plastic recycling was created by the oil and gas industry to counter a growing resistance against plastic waste several decades ago. “NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.”
When China began to refuse shipments of plastic waste the result was that most supposedly “recycled” plastic is now burned or buried in landfills.
Recycling plastic has many problems. There are too few companies in the United States that recycle it. Recycled plastic is inferior in quality to “virgin” plastic. Plastic can only be recycled a few times before it is useless. It is more expensive to recycle plastic than to produce new plastic from oil and gas. The result, especially in this time of COVID-19, is a glut of discarded plastic that can never be recycled, only buried or burned.
So what is the solution? First, we can just stop buying single-use plastic. There are plenty of alternatives to plastic wrap, plastic tableware, plastic straws, plastic dishes, cups and glasses, even to plastic food containers. Second, we can support the reusable movement. More and more stores, restaurants and delivery services are offering refillable containers that the customer can use again and again. Third, we can act politically. We can encourage efforts to ban single-use plastic. We can oppose proposals to build more petrochemical factories.
We also need to remember that this is a problem particular to plastics, not to all recycling. Recycled aluminum, cardboard, newsprint, steel and glass are still in demand. You just need to be careful how you recycle it. Rinse bottle and cans. Be sure the surfaces of foil and cardboard are free of food. Crush aluminum cans and the plastic bottles that you do recycle, ball up foil, break down boxes. All this improves the efficiency of recycling centers and the chances that what you put in the recycling bin actually will be recycled.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Susan Burghes

    Thank you Elliott. I have tried very hard to take a stand on single use plastics.
    I am very upset about the ethylene cracking plant that is supposed to be built on the Ohio River near Portsmouth. There must be a better way of supporting the economy of small rural communities.

  2. Willmar Furgesin

    You made some good points about how recycling is not enough to solve the plastic pollution problem and how we need to reduce our consumption and demand for more sustainable alternatives.

    However, I have a question that was not covered in your blog. What do you think about the role of plastic recycling marketplaces in creating a circular economy? These are online platforms that connect buyers and sellers of recycled plastics and plastic scraps from different countries and regions. They claim to make it easier for brands and consumers to find quality, reliable, and traceable recycled plastic materials and products.

    For example, I recently discovered Rawtech, which is a global marketplace for ocean and ocean-bound plastic materials and products. They have a network of collectors and suppliers who remove plastic waste from the environment and turn it into resins, textiles, components and finished goods.

    I think these platforms are very promising and innovative solutions that can help create more demand for recycled plastics. Have you heard of them or used them before? What are your thoughts on their impact and potential?

    1. Elliott Bush

      I really appreciate your bringing the plastic recycling marketplaces to my attention. Recently I’ve been getting lots of helpful suggestions from readers about links to areas where I have not yet explored. I will be taking a look at Rawtech and other organizations like it.
      However, although it is a very good thing to collect as much ocean and ocean going plastic as we can, this is not a truly circular economy. It is my understanding that plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times before it is landfilled. Here’s a report from NPR on Greenpeace’s study of the problem (}, and another summary of plastic lifetimes from Tree Hugger ( While I certainly agree with you that plastic should be recycled as much as possible and into as many products as possible, at some point its life will end and the only thing to do with it is to bury it. That, and the unknown health effect of having micro and nano plastics in our bodies is why I prefer to replace all the plastics in my home with glass, ceramic, silicon, cardboard, and other more successfully recyclable products and to try to avoid buying products packed in plastic when I can (though that is not at all easy!).
      And please understand that this blog is written by an amateur. Every week I read many newsletters and articles by journalists and organizations where the articles have been fact checked. I try to pick out stories that will interest my church readers and others and to offer their links with comments. And since my basic goal on the plastic issue is to try to get people to stop using it in the home, I focus on telling people about the dangers of plastic and plastic alternatives. I hope that as more and more people learn about the dangers of plastic and stop using it, the petrochemical companies that make it will cease expanding and cut back, especially if the UN treaty is widely adopted.
      Thank you for reading my modest blog and taking the time to comment!

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