We often talk about actions around the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – but the real impact of those on plastic production, and consequent pollution, is not as well articulated. How much can we collectively achieve by reducing, reusing, and recycling?
Plastic Waste: the status-quo
First, let’s take a look at the current scenario. According to the EPA, over 35 million tons of plastic is generated in the United States each year. Out of that:
- 75% ends up in landfills
- 15% is incinerated
- Less than 10% of all plastic waste is recycled
Why aren’t recycling rates higher? Most of what you throw in your recycling bin is going to the landfill or being incinerated. We “wishcycle” (wish it was recycled) a lot.
Why? It all starts with a gigantic lack of waste management infrastructure that was overshadowed for years by waste exports (40 to 70% to be precise) to countries like China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey… Add that to technical and economical constraints, and you have the situation we’re in today.
Wouldn’t it be just easier to reduce our consumption? Bingo! There is a wide range of federal, state, and municipal initiatives being advanced that seek to address our fundamental concerns around single-use plastics, producer responsibility, etc. Moreover, reuse is becoming a thing and innovative reusing models are introduced every day. From coffee shops to industrial equipment, there are reuse solutions for most everything these days.
By reusing and recycling, we can reduce new production, which will lead to less fracking, cracking and emissions and pollutants released into air, water, and soil. That means less adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
But again, how big of an impact can these actions have? Let’s get to the numbers.
REDUCE and REUSE can decrease plastic production by 30%
Reusing plastic conserves the embodied energy and other valuable resources used to manufacture products and components. The more a product is utilized, the larger the return on the resources used to make it. Those resources include materials, labor, energy, and capital.
So, how can we reduce plastic? This report from Pew Foundation highlights that 30% of plastic production could be reduced by:
- Eliminating plastic (e.g., product redesigns, reduced overpackaging, and plastic bans)
- Encouraging consumers to reuse the plastic they have or encouraging them to switch from single- use plastics to reusable items
- Creating new product delivery models (e.g., refill services, shifting products to services, e-commerce, and dispensers).
- Substituting plastic with alternative materials that are more easily recyclable or compostable (e.g. paper and coated paper)
Besides reducing plastics, reusing them can lower the GHG emissions associated with new production and end-of-life treatment. And, of course, producing less plastic means the volume of plastics in our daily lives will naturally be reduced, as well as the littering we see every day in our lands, rivers, and oceans.
RECYCLE can impact plastic production by 20%
The same PEW report considers that 20% of new plastic production could be reduced if we recycle more.
Why isn’t this percentage higher? Because it’s much more complex to get the waste into the recycling stream. And once it’s there, it takes part in an industrial process during which the plastic is often “downcycled.”
Downcycled plastic is recycled to a lower value material that can’t be used in the same application because of its inferior properties. For example, it’s the yogurt cup NOT becoming a yogurt cup, but rather being mixed with wood to become a bench. Some recycling processes promise better recycled properties, but they usually have high energy consumption and emissions. This is all part of why reusing and reducing plastic are more effective than only recycling plastic.
Here are a few more stats:
- Roughly 50-60% of US households have access to curbside recycling (it means that those who don’t, have everything sent to the landfill).
- Films (like bags), tubes, small formats, and other challenging packaging types CANNOT be recycled in most US municipalities.
- From what is captured, less than 10% make a new material. The remaining goes to the landfill.
- Virgin plastic is usually cheaper than recycled. It is more costly to produce recycled than it can be sold for, herein the lack of market and demand.
What does this all mean for you? For starters, you could choose to reuse materials whenever possible. Any time you need to purchase new materials, you could look for products that are made from materials like paper or aluminum (which has a higher recycling rate) – or made from recycled plastic, rather than virgin. You can also participate in reusing systems available in your city – like reusable takeout containers, reusable coffee cups. And finally, you could contact your local recycling facilities to learn more about what kind of materials they can take, and recycle whatever you can. Just like the production process is a lifecycle, so too is the process of working towards more sustainable packaging usage.