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Plastics Recycling Misses the Point. Here’s What We Can Try Next

Read the complete CNET article

Taking the leap to switch from traditional plastics to reusable ones is a feat that comes with many challenges.

Knowing how to design these products, who to purchase products from, how to scale up their tests to full production, etc. are all things that will come up when making the transition. The U.S. Plastics Pact’s Reuse Catalyst program is hoping to shift assist packaging manufacturers and companies with their circular goals.

Odds are, the next soda bottle you buy will be on this planet long after you’re gone. That can be a jarring thought, particularly if you’re someone who recycles.

The bottle itself is likely a type of plastic called PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. The label is maybe made of another type of polyethylene, or polyvinyl chloride plastic. Both are recyclable, though not together. If there’s an additive color in the bottle, that could send the bottle straight to the dump. And then there’s the cap — to literally top it all off — possibly made of polypropylene, yet another type of plastic.

The sheer variety of plastics in the world, and the fact that you can’t simply melt them down together to make more plastic, is just one illustration of how complicated recycling plastics is. Since 1950, the world has produced more than 9.5 billion tons of plastic, according to a report from Our World in Data. Less than 9% of plastics get recycled, the report also said, leaving the rest to be either discarded or incinerated. Sometimes they’re turned into low-grade fossil fuels that environmentalists argue contributes to the production of greenhouse gasses.

You’ve likely seen your fair share of recycling campaigns or heard about various states charging for plastic shopping bags or coffee shops nixing plastic straws. They might have wondered which container to throw a used takeout box or sheet of bubble wrap. Maybe they’ve wondered if it’s worth figuring out at all.

“Plastic has given recycling a bad name,” said Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and the president of Beyond Plastics. “People are understandably confused, because they reach for products that often have the recycling logo on them, when in fact, they never get recycled.”

The upshot of a situation where humans are generating more plastic than ever ranges from projections that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight, to the unsettling idea that every person may unknowingly consume about a credit card’s worth of plastic every week, thanks to the pervasiveness of microplastics, or the tiny particle of plastics created when larger plastics are produced or broken down.

Enck cited a 2022 poll from Oceana that found 8 in 10 American voters support policies reducing single-use plastic.

“[That’s a] pretty strong indicator that the public is ready for change,” Enck said.

There are plenty of reasons why plastics have been useful over the last more than half century. The Plastics Industry Association‘s website points out how lightweight polyethylene was used to insulate radar cabling, giving British war planes a weight advantage over the Germans. Plastic helps reduce food waste by keeping food fresh for longer, and it keeps medical devices and equipment free of bacteria and other contaminants.

For companies, manufacturing single-use plastics is cheaper and more convenient than looking for an alternative. It’s a benefit for them, surely, but it’s also one of the reasons consumption of plastics has exploded the way it has.

One point of frustration for folks like Enck is the way the responsibility for recycling plastics has been placed on individuals over the years, rather than the companies cranking out virgin plastic on a daily basis.

When you order something online, it might arrive in an envelope with recycling logos on it, but the fate of that envelope might depend on whether your local municipality has an adequate program set up or whether you have the time to figure out where to find a store drop-off location and take it there.

“We can’t recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis that we’re in,” said Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the US Plastics Pact, which is a consortium of nonprofits, government agencies, companies, research institutions and the like founded by The Recycling Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund.

“Posted with permission from CENT.”

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