recycling plastic is more harmful than you think

recycling plastic is more harmful than you think

Written by Hailee Settlemoir

Reduce, reuse, recycle. These are the first things you are taught when you learn about sustainability as a child. Recycling plastic is also an easy task to delegate to children, denoted by teaching them about the little recycling symbol on Coke bottles and old food containers. Add in a reward system, and your child is suddenly a recycling master. But what if recycling plastic was not only a waste of time and money, but also bad for the environment? Today, we are going to dive into how recycling plastic, and plastics themselves, are awful for the health of our planet.

Even before you face the decision to trash or recycle your plastic items, the environment has already been impacted negatively by the production. To make plastics, fossil fuels are needed. This process, while using these detrimental fossil fuels, also emits greenhouse gasses and hazardous chemicals. Fossil fuels are burnable fuels that are found in the Earth’s crust that are made from decomposing plants and animals. Examples of fossil fuels are natural gas, oil, and coal. Additionally, landfilled, or littered plastics break down into microplastics, which contaminate our water, air, and even our food supply. Unfortunately, the only way for the amount of dangerous microplastics to lessen is for companies to make less plastic, and for recycling programs to be reevaluated to reuse more plastics and make them into something useful.

According to research done in 2020 by Science Advances, a U.S citizen generates 287 pounds of plastic in a single year. While I wish all 287 pounds of plastic I could personally generate was recycled, only around 8.7% of discarded plastic is actually recycled. But why? If I am throwing my plastics into the recycling bin, why is it not being turned into a recycled product? Well, there are a few things that happen to your plastics. They could be littered (although I hope if you are a reader of this blog that you don’t litter), tossed into landfills (even if you recycled), incinerated to make energy (although this energy is the farthest thing from clean energy), or recycled into a new product. It can also be shipped abroad, where they usually end up in in landfills. The reason that most plastics do not actually get reused into another product is because of the mix of chemicals that are required in plastics. Since the base materials that are commonly recycled are mixed with these harsh chemicals, it is hard to isolate the bases needed to recycle, and therefore reuse the material.

Illustrations: Spooky Pooka

Additionally, companies do not have a large incentive to lessen their plastic production. This is due to the financial aspects of manufacturing. It costs way less for a company to manufacture a new plastic bottle than it is for a company to use old plastics to make something new. Companies also use recycling opportunities as a way to “greenwash”. This can be seen in products with a “check locally” sign. This is because one will assume this product can be recycled, however, it is most likely going to end up in a landfill. 

So, it is really worth recycling plastics? The answer is a bit more complicated than a yes or no. The best way to ensure that the plastics you use are recycled to the best of your ability is by following the labels on your products. Just throwing all plastics into your recycling bin and hoping for the best can actually lessen the number of plastics recycled. Additionally, I would try to find alternatives to plastic, like compostable cups or paper-made straws. Always make sure to check your local recycling laws and any local recycling centers before you assume something needs to go to the landfill. Next week we will dive into how to the problems with Black Friday, and the overconsumption it encourages, so stick around!


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