The practice of recycling plastics has existed in American for more than half a century. The objective is simple: to recycle as high a percentage of plastic as possible so they don’t end up in a landfill or bodies of water while also conserving resources and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions.
While many strides have been made since then, plastics recycling is still behind aluminum and paper in terms of total percentage recycled. There are reasons to be both pessimistic and optimistic about the future of recycling plastics. Here’s why:
The Pessimistic Case
There’s been a good amount of recent negative coverage regarding the state of plastics recycling. These cases tend to argue that although Americans support and are in the habit of recycling, the percent of plastics actually recycled each year is in the single digits.
The reasoning for this is attributed to the difficulty sorting different kinds of plastics for the recycling process. There are many different types of plastics with different chemical compositions and many times these plastics cannot be recycled together. The sorting process can be both time consuming and expensive.
Other arguments against the current state of plastic recycling include the danger of fire and toxic additives and the fact that recycled plastics can be more expensive than new plastics due to the costly and cumbersome nature of the process.
The Optimistic Case
However, there are many in the plastic recycling industry that believe there are also reasons to be optimistic for the future. One key reason for optimism is polling consistently shows that Americans support recycling. And while we currently collect and successfully recycle only a small percentage of plastic overall, the rate for plastic packaging is in the lower double digits. Meanwhile, the rate for polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polyethylene is over 25%.
Plus, there is room for significant growth. Millions of Americans lack equitable access to recycling and millions more lack the proper education and outreach to help them better understand what should and shouldn’t be recycled. Solving those problems could greatly increase the amount of plastic successfully recycled.
Another reason for optimism is the growing plastic recycling industry in the United States, which is helping to lessen our dependence on foreign markets. Furthermore, dozens of global retail brands have signed onto the U.S Plastics Pact, which aims to ensure all plastic packaging is recyclable, reusable, compostable by 2025.