Despite our best intentions to place bottles and other eligible recyclables into blue bins, the truth is that less than 9 percent of plastic is actually recycled. With an economy that produces 35 million tons of plastic waste yearly, up to 200 million tons of plastic waste already floating in the world’s oceans, and all projections suggesting the consumption of plastic will continue to grow worldwide, we desperately need to find a solution.
Using less plastic undoubtedly needs to be part of our goal, but some are standing in the way of improved recycling technology because they believe more effective recycling makes it harder to shame consumers into a plastics-free world.
We should absolutely do more to cut plastic from our lives, but large-scale commercial production and adoption of plastic alternatives throughout the supply chain are many years away. It is understandable to be frustrated by our dependence on plastics, but if we don’t seek immediate improvements to recycling, we will be resigning ourselves to needing more and more fossil fuels to make new plastic.
A key problem is that only 20 percent of plastic waste is eligible for recycling using traditional methods, and, of that amount, we are still struggling to find a place to send it after China quit accepting recyclables back in 2018. As a result, most plastic waste in the United States is either filling up landfills, finding its way into streams and sensitive habitats, or being burned in incinerators. None of those are acceptable outcomes.
Fortunately, there is a recycling method that is being deployed for the first time on a widespread commercial scale that can turn hard-to-recycle plastics into fully usable materials that can be recycled indefinitely, called advanced recycling. It is a thermal process that, in the absence of oxygen and combustion, superheats plastic waste to return it into the prime resins used to create new plastic in the first place.
Comparable to aluminum and ferrous metal recycling, advanced recycling creates a recycled product that is the same as the original and can be done over and over, making it truly circular.
Waste streams that are ineligible for traditional recycling are actually ideal feedstocks for advanced recycling, like packing pillows, garbage bags, Styrofoam, grocery/bread bags, potato chip bags, shipping films, and medical containers.
While it is still an industrial operation, its emissions profile is no different than a community medical center. Making plastic from advanced recycling feedstock requires far less energy, cuts water usage and mitigates greenhouse gas emissions compared to producing plastic from fossil fuels.
In all cases, advanced recycling is far better for the environment than landfilling, incineration or using virgin fossil resources to create new plastic. Additionally, advanced recycling technology continues to improve and use new technologies that create further environmental benefits. For instance, the use of renewable energy to power the thermal needs of advanced recycling further reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
While using less plastic is a primary goal, advanced recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to other plastic waste management options by 43 percent, reduces water consumption by 58 percent, and, of course, keeps waste plastic out of incinerators, landfills, oceans and other waterways. If we take the position that doing better at recycling lets consumers off the hook for using plastic, we’ll be letting righteousness cloud our judgment and perpetuating the extraordinary environmental costs plastics present in the first place.