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

CNET 12/7/2022 Erin Carson
These bottles might outlive you. Getty © Provided by CNET These bottles might outlive you. Getty

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. 

Recycling a plastic bottle might seem easy: Chuck it in that blue bin and move on with your day. Rest easy knowing that bottle will go on to see multiple incarnations in the future. The problem is, though, there's more to that bottle than meets the eye, which is why it might end up in a landfill instead. 

Zooey Liao/CNET © Provided by CNET Zooey Liao/CNET

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. 

Still, experts in the field think there's reason to hope.

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.

Recycling our way out

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.

Beyond recycling

Despite the despair-inducing images of landfills and plastic mounds in the ocean, experts in the field remain hopeful that there's a future where the plastics situation is more under control. 

On an individual level, people can cut their usage of single-use plastics by using refillable water bottles and reusable shopping bags. They can bring their own mugs to the coffee shop and buy products from companies offering reusable packaging. 

There's also research being done to improve plastics. Christopher Noble, director of corporate engagement for the Environmental Solutions Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talked about work being done in the realm of polymer engineering to create plastics that can degrade given a certain trigger. Think about plastic shopping bags that break apart when exposed to salt water. For the lifetime of that bag, it does its job holding your groceries from the store, to your car, to your kitchen. But if it ends up in the ocean, it'll dissolve instead of ending up choking a fish. 

Lucas Ellis, assistant professor at Oregon State University's School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering, helped work on research that delved into the idea of using "oxygen and catalysts to break down plastics into smaller, biologically friendly chemical building blocks." The team then used a biologically engineered soil that could consume those building blocks and turn them into either something called a biopolymer or a component for advanced nylon production.

The work was a collaboration between chemical and biological engineering. 

"[There's] no silver bullet, there isn't going to be one technical advance that's going to fix the problem," Noble said, also noting that incremental progress does matter, and often it comes about through a variety of approaches to a problem.

Circling back

The idea of turning the plastic bag into something that can safely go back to Mother Nature underscores a concept called the circular economy. 

The idea is keeping as many of the materials and energy circling back around instead of letting it turn into waste, Tipaldo said. And that notably includes companies thinking through the lifespan of the products they make, down to how they will be disposed of. 

At Oregon State, Ellis teaches a class about the circular economy. He pointed out that in nature, there's no waste. 

"There's nothing that's accumulating on Earth that's organic in nature that just builds and builds and builds," he said. 

Humans could take a major lesson from that. As things stand, much of what we use isn't designed to be repaired in order to keep working or be broken down and remade. Take a pair of cheap headphones -- they're likely made of a plastic casing with wires and electronics inside, maybe some foam around the ears. They're not built to last 20 years, and the mix of materials means it's going to be nearly impossible to separate and recycle. 

Young children learn about the three R's -- reduce, reuse and recycle, but those first two get short shrift. 

Even the environmentally conscious can fall into this trap. Reporting by Bloomberg in 2020 found that wind turbine blades, made of a mix of steel, resin or plastic, fiberglass, and other materials, were being buried in landfills in places like Casper, Wyoming. Blades last up to about 20 years but are frequently replaced after about 10 years, according to the report, and though they're made to produce alternative energy, the blades are just another form of waste that can't be reused or recycled. In 2021, GE committed to building zero-waste blades by 2030.

CNET's Laura Hautala reported on how reusable shopping bags, ostensibly made to cut down on waste from plastic shopping bags, still come into being through carbon emissions. 

That's why folks like Noble and Ellis say there needs to be a plan as products are designed. 

Some companies are cluing into this. Caterpillar, which makes construction equipment, has been fixing up old engines.

"It's taking a product which is towards the end of its life, refurbishing it and basically putting it back in service and extending the life," Caterpillar Financial Chief Andrew Bonfield told the Wall Street Journal this year. 

Ikea launched a buy-back program for gently used Ikea furniture that can be resold. Coca-Cola is nixing the green dye from its bottles. CNET's Lisa Eadicicco wrote about how Apple and Samsung are integrating recycling into how they make phones. By 2050, Samsung wants to use recycled resin in 100% of the plastics in its products. Last year, Apple said a fifth of the material used in its products was recycled. 

Tipaldo said there's been a shift with companies starting to take on more accountability.

"Just a few years ago, companies didn't want to talk about producer responsibility," she said. Public pressure and legislative initiatives around the country have helped push some of this forward. 

Loop, founded in 2019, works with brands and manufacturers from Coca-Cola to Pantene to make refillable containers for products and supports the infrastructure to keep those containers in the, well, loop. Notpla makes food packaging out of seaweed -- including small pods called Ooha that hold liquid, like an energy drink for marathon runners or shots, that you can pop into your mouth and eat. 

There's still a ways to go, but for Noble and MIT, the key is bringing together academics, companies and governments in order to actually create a circular economy. 

Ellis said, "if you get to the point of recycling, recycling is probably a last resort."

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