Updated January 2021: In November 2020, China officially decided to stop taking American recyclables altogether. And with America lacking the infrastructure to recycle our own waste, it means that even less recyclable materials are actually being processed (estimates put it at approximately 9%). Rather, materials meant for the recycling bin are ending up either in landfills in poor countries in Asia and Africa or in the ocean.
Continue reading below to learn more about the problems facing recycling, particularly when it comes to plastic.
I’ve long had mixed feelings about recycling.
The cons of recycling are rarely discussed. We often don’t think about the carbon emissions and pollution that come from the transportation of the materials halfway across the world as well as the toxic waste from breaking down the recyclables, for example.
And now, NPR has confirmed my apprehensions about recycling. Well, at least for recycling plastic.
In 2019, NPR’s Planet Money podcast did a two-parter on recycling and it turns out the cons of recycling plastic might actually outweigh the pros. (You can listen to the episode here).
Apparently, China, which takes most of our recycled products, is starting to reject our waste more and more. It’s no longer cost-efficient for them to clean and break down our plastic materials. As a result, they often throw away our plastic… in the ocean. Yikes.
On the flip side, throwing away your plastic straight away means your plastic ends up in a landfill. And according to one of their expert interviewees, landfill beats ocean.
Obviously, not everyone agrees. But it’s enough to convince me that recycling plastic just doesn’t pay off.