The dirty secret of recycling plastics has been exposed and it’s burying us

When we throw items away in recycling bins, we expect them to be recycled and feel proud to be doing our part to help the environment and make the world a better place. Unfortunately, it’s been a big lie as far as plastics is concerned.

The problem with plastics is that a lot of it is unrecyclable because it’s not of good enough quality, which makes it more expensive to recycle it. As a result, the United States and other wealthy nations have spent years shipping tons of plastic waste to less developed nations, where it has been piling up to the point where they are now refusing to take it.

In fact, Malaysia is so fed up with the amount of plastic waste in their backyard that they are preparing to send it all back from where it came from so the countries that sent it around the globe to be rid of it will have to deal with it themselves.

If it can’t be recycled, it’s either stuffed in already maxed out landfills, ends up in the ocean where it turns into smaller pieces swallowed by birds, whales, turtles, fish and other wildlife that soon die because of it. Or it’s burned, which creates toxic air pollution that contributes to climate change and harms our own health.

“These mountains of plastic waste sometimes end up being openly burned, which can have really significant health impacts,” said Claire Arkin of GAIA. In fact, millions of people have died because of air pollution and more will continue to die because of the toxins released by burning plastic waste.

“I think that it’s time that we all stop kidding ourselves,” Ecology Center executive director Martin Bourque told Vice. “We’re collecting this stuff in the blue bin so we can all feel good about recycling, and then we sort it out and half of it is still going to the landfill. At what point do you say, ‘You know what, it’s not recyclable’?”

Bourque helped pioneer recycling back in 1973, but the plastics industry has spent millions of dollars lobbying for its products all while making them out of cheap material that can’t be recycled. These single-use plastics are becoming such a problem that the Italian island of Capri recently banned them in the country.

“We were always skeptics of collecting this kind of material, the mixed non-bottled plastics,” Bourque said. “The reason that plastic packaging is super cost-effective is because it’s cheap. Everything about it that makes it great for packagers makes it terrible for recyclers. Recycling kind of lost its way in its overzealousness of trying to make everything recyclable. The bottom fell out of the market.”

As a result, only a shocking nine percent of plastics are actually recycled, exposing a pressing need for the world to regulate the plastics industry and ban single-use plastics.

“When a product claims to be recyclable, my immediate response is, OK, ‘Where? How?’” waste reduction administrator Joe Dunlop said, adding that banning single-use plastics is “long overdue.”

“The stuff that we were sending overseas for processing was not of good quality, and we finally got called out on it,” he said.

Indeed, most of Southeast Asia and China are refusing to take the plastic waste, which means we could find ourselves buried in our own trash that we irresponsibly used and threw away for decades, forcing us to finally deal with a problem that could have been prevented a long time ago had we just held the plastics industry more accountable.

Featured Image: Screenshot

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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