Miniature plastic toiletry bottle
Photograph ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

Is There Any Hope For Plastic Recycling? Earth Day 2021

Plastic tends to be a concern among environmentalists who fear that the artificial material — which is not indigenous to any natural setting on the planet but is found in many of the products we use every day — is slowly polluting the Earth, as millions of tons are generated and disposed annually…

Is There Any Hope For Plastic Recycling? Earth Day 2021

Crushed water bottle
Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

…but the fact that almost 35.7 million tons of plastic was produced in the United States alone in 2018 — according to the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States — should not be a problem. After all, plastic can be recycled, as indicated by that little triangle with the number inside of it at the bottom of bottles and other items which are manufactured as plastic. Simply toss it into the proper bin; and it will find a new life as a different plastic item and not simply be left somewhere to take centuries to finally decompose while leaching chemicals into the soil or water in the process…

…or so the public at large was led to believe by the major oil companies, as one investigative report accuses “big oil” of lying and betraying the public trust pertaining to the viability of recycling the now-ubiquitous material.

“Laura Leebrick, a manager at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon, is standing on the end of its landfill watching an avalanche of plastic trash pour out of a semitrailer: containers, bags, packaging, strawberry containers, yogurt cups”, according to this article by Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio — which is better known as NPR. “None of this plastic will be turned into new plastic things. All of it is buried.”

The problem is that recycling plastic may be friendly to the environment — but doing so is often more expensive than simply disposing of the items in the trash or burning it.

Take a look at the following chart which is included in the aforementioned report from the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States:

1960-2018 Data on Plastics in Municipal Solid Waste by Weight
in Thousands of United States Tons

Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2017 2018
Generation 390 2,900 6,830 17,130 25,550 29,380 31,400 34,480 35,410 35,680
Recycled 20 370 1,480 1,780 2,500 3,120 3,000 3,090
Composted
Combustion with Energy Recovery 140 2,980 4,120 4,330 4,530 5,330 5,590 5,620
Landfilled 390 2,900 6,670 13,780 19,950 23,270 24,370 26,030 26,820 26,970

Sources: Plastics information is from the American Chemistry Council and the National Association for PET Container Resources. A dash indicates data which is not available.

Of the 35,680,000 tons of plastic which was generated in the United States alone, greater than 75 percent — or 26,970,000 tons — was buried in landfills. Only 3,090,000 tons of plastic — which seems like a lot but is actually only slightly greater than 8.66 percent — was actually recycled; and those percentages remained fairly constant since 2015.

“The fact is, a huge amount of the plastic surrounding us isn’t recycled because it’s not really recyclable — and that means that it that it ends up in landfills, or burnt, or in the ocean where it breaks down into microplastics, gets eaten by fish, and can end up inside us,” according to John Oliver in this video from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

If that sounds familiar to you, that may be because you may have read this article about why soaps which contain microbeads are no longer available or this article at The Gate pertaining to the possibility that we ingest enough plastic to eat one credit card per week — a statement which was questioned and challenged by some readers of The Gate, as indicated by this comment by WR2 as one example:

Sorry, but there’s so much misinformation in this post. First off, there are no “garbage patches” in the oceans. I assume you are referring to the “garbage island” meme, which is a complete lie. If you go there you will see nothing. There is an increase in the ppm in that area of the ocean, but most of the particles are tiny.

Second, relying on one “study” is dubious at best, so I would bet my life that the real number of amount of plastic ingested is much lower. However, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s pretty much harmless. It passes right through your system. It is a non-problem. That should be obvious given how much plastic we supposedly consume and yet we are doing just fine thank you.

Finally, the majority of plastic entering the oceans comes from Asia. Specifically, China, Thailand and Vietnam. If you go to Thailand you will see this firsthand. We are not the problem. We don’t dump our garbage into the ocean. So what we do here makes zero difference.

To support that argument, WR2 cited this article by Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health, which claims that eight rivers in Asia and two rivers in Africa cause approximately 90 percent of pollution in the oceans of the world which are caused by plastic. Assuming that that statistic is true, that means that the aforementioned numbers of the generation of plastic in the United States — as well as the remainder of North America, Europe, and Australia inclusive — is fewer than ten percent.

Furthermore, John Stossel — who has been an investigative reporter for decades — called out on the “tyranny” and “stupidity” of recycling with the following two videos:

Yes, Hope Does Exist For Recycling Plastic

Although recycling plastic does seem to help — even if at only slightly greater than 8.66 percent — some innovative thinking has led to one promising effort: paving roads and highways with plastic.

“A road running through Accra, Ghana’s capital, looks like any other blacktop. Yet what most drivers don’t realize is that the asphalt under them contains a slurry of used plastics — shredded and melted bags, bottles, and snack wraps — that otherwise were destined for a landfill”, according to this article written by Ann Parson of Yale School for the environment. “The impetus for many similar road projects underway in Ghana was an ambitious plan announced by President Akufo-Addo in 2018. It calls for Ghanaians to strive for a circular model, to recycle and reuse as much plastic waste as they produce each year — roughly 1.1 million tons — by 2030.”

At only approximately five percent of plastics which are recycled, Ghana — which is one of the 54 countries which comprise the continent of Africa — apparently has a worse percentage than the United States; and because only 23 percent of the entire road network in Ghana was paved as of January of 2019, paving roads with plastic that would otherwise find its way into a landfill or burnt would actually help towards solving two problems simultaneously.

I have driven on many unpaved roads in several countries in Africa. I intend to document my experience in Lesotho as an example in a future article. Having paved roads would obviously have been easier on which to drive.

Summary

plastic shopping bag
Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Only approximately nine percent of the 350 million tons of plastic which humans produce each year is recycled — and the problem is that no tangible value can be realized by the average everyday man, woman, or child…

…but once a value is placed on used plastic or some other material which would otherwise be considered worthless, more people will be incentivized to repurpose it. One example is used cooking oil which was disposed by restaurants — until vehicles were manufactured which could use it as fuel; and diesel engines can supposedly operate on used vegetable oil — but operating motor vehicles with used vegetable oil may not be legal, according to this article from the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States:

Raw vegetable oil or recycled greases (also called waste cooking oil) that have not been processed into esters are not biodiesel, and are not registered by EPA for legal use in motor vehicles. Because of the potential for increased emissions from a vehicle, it is considered unlawful tampering to convert a vehicle designed for diesel fuel to operate on waste cooking oil without EPA certification. To date, EPA has not certified any such conversions. These conversions may also violate the terms of the vehicle warranty.

Likewise, guests at hotel and resort properties who prefer using single use bottles of toiletries, straws, and other items manufactured out of plastic which are intended to be used only once or a few times may not see the value proposition of using bulk dispensers of products instead in order to reduce the footprint of pollution which is caused by plastic.

One of the 37 bills which Gavin Newsom signed into law as of Wednesday, October 9, 2019 was a bill to ban personal care products in the form of miniature plastic toiletry bottles — which contain fewer than 12 ounces of liquid product — from lodging establishments in California to become effective as of Sunday, January 1, 2023. Only eight days earlier, the state of New York announced the intent in seeking to enact a similar law.

As I wrote in this article last year, my preference is to have the choice of whether or not I want the small containers of toiletries — reasons which both support and oppose them are listed in this article — but I am likely in the minority regarding that opinion…

Souq Muttrah Corniche Muscat Oman
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

…and while I am not panicking about “global warming” and fearing the catastrophic effects to the environment which some people claim will occur, I believe we should do everything we can — within reason and within our power — to control the amount of pollution caused by plastic. For example, I prefer to purchase small souvenirs from other countries rather than souvenirs which are stamped out by some production line in some faraway country which offers little value, in my opinion — which was one of the three reasons which I did not like the souq at Muttrah Corniche in Muscat in Oman. You can find out nine other tips pertaining to purchasing souvenirs in this article.

Water jugs
Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

I also attempt to repurpose items which may otherwise wind up in a landfill or burnt. For example, I use clean jugs for drinking water to reclaim water which would otherwise be wasted.

Other articles pertaining to plastic waste and recycling include:

All photographs ©2015, ©2016, ©2017, and ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

  1. We shut down the world over germs… people washed their grocery purchases and left packages outside to decontaminate for days… yet hotels want us to share community toiletries used by whomever last stayed in our room?! Ick!!!

    Give me individual, previously unopened toiletries or tell me ahead of time to bring my own. I have no interest in the economy bottle touched by every prior occupant and cleaned who knows when.

    There must be better ways to control plastics waste and/or pollution that that ridiculous plan.

    1. Your point seems rather ironic, NB_ga — and people should be given a choice.

      I suppose every little bit helps when attempting to improve the quality of the environment — as long as other problems do not occur as a result, such as what you point out.

  2. The hypocrisy on environmentalism is stunning. On the one hand millions of dollars are being wasted to try to control climate change that we most likely have little control over (any true scientist that tries to tell the truth is punished). Yet most of the very same people that are scared about this “threat” go about their daily lives with no regard to the impact our wasteful behavior is are having on planet. I think about this almost every day. Recycling is an obvious way that we can take better care of our planet, yet the programs in place to ensure proper recycling are inadequate. Where we live, where they just announced a plan to try to mitigate climate change, many plastics are not considered recyclable.

    1. I think about that too, Barry Graham.

      For example, I cannot tell you how many times I see a driver accelerate unnecessarily — and ultimate waste fuel — just to get to a red light or a stop sign…

  3. Your 1960-2018 Data on Plastics in Municipal Solid Waste by Weight in Thousands of United States Tons is slightly misleading when it shows no plastics being composted. Many of us worm composters recycle plastic water bottles, fill them with water, freeze them and place them in our compost bins in summer as a form of air conditioning to keep our worm composting bins under 80 degrees. In addition many worm farmers use recycled plastic composting bins. Recycled plastics are very much a part of the business of composting as our worms turn tons of Amazon cardboard and food waste headed for landfills into soil nutrients, bird and fish food.

    1. Thank you for that information about worm composting, AlohaDaveKennedy; but the source of the chart is directly from the Environmental Protection Agency — and for some reason for which I do not know why, they did not have data available for composting.

      What do you think is your rough estimate of the amount of plastics which is composted?

      1. Extremely hard to quantify as you have many commercial composting operations, like Uncle Jim’s, but a huge and growing number of us noncommercial composters. Both worm and nonworm composters use a significant amount of plastics to aid decomposition because they will not readily decompose in the process, like metal or wood. Use of plastic in composting is akin to use of a catalyst to promote decomposition. BTW, there are many plastics designed to actually decompose under certain conditions, but it is a real crap shoot as to whether their disposal in trash will actually transport them to a proper environment to decompose.

  4. I recycle plastic bottles all the time and reuse them. I think your article is very good on this. I would point out that the USA is always portrayed as the evil empire of polluting white privileged folks who hate the planet (none of which is true of course) while countries like China are much worse on these sorts of issues. For example, China alone produced 31% of the world’s plastic in 2019 and if you add in the rest of Asia they combined produced about 50% of the world’s plastic which is more than Europe and North America combined. Plus I would venture a guess that Europe and North America recycle much more plastic than most areas of the planet. Global warming and climate change are a giant farce in my opinion but that doesn’t mean folks like me can’t have common ground with tree-hugging socialists. Although I don’t believe in the religion of climate change I do like to see our planet clean. I enjoy clean air and clean water just like the next person. I recycle when I can but there is little interest when people run around talking about taxing carbon which is ridiculous.

  5. To really have big effect on plastic. We should be looking at plastic fishing nets. Most of the plastic in the pacific is from marine waste materials like fishing nets. NBC reported one group pull over 40 tons off of isolate Hawaiian beaches. Also Netflix has movie called seaspiracy that documents this. Lots of area to work on

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