Where is all of our plastics going to go?

NPR recently published an article about the future of the US recycling industry. Last year, China stopped accepting plastic waste imports. This is where much of the United States’ recyclables had been sent previously. This has caused a controversy about what to do with all of the plastic/ recyclables. Some say the US needs to increase our domestic recycling in order to create a “circular economy” of plastic in which the recycling repurposes the plastic that is used towards the demand. Because of the many different types of plastics, some are easier than other to make reusable via melting, shredded, or some broken down mechanically. One particular challenge is that recycled plastic is much more expensive to make than “virgin plastic,” which has been “made cheap by the boom in U.S. oil and gas production.”

Plastic manufacturers have continued to make more and more, further adding to the already used plastic that needs to be recycled. Although many of these companies have pledged to try to reuse, they have not stopped producing at increasing amounts. Some environmental groups have suggested that by building up recycling, it has allowed plastic companies to keep producing new plastics, but not handled the burden of the waste of this new plastic. The petrochemical industry is spending billions of dollars on a boom in new plastic but does not have a concrete answer on how to deal with this increase in plastic. This article can be found at: https://www.npr.org/2019/08/20/750864036/u-s-recycling-industry-is-struggling-to-figure-out-a-future-without-china

I was personally surprised and also scared after reading this article. I had previously heard that much of the plastic we recycle is not actually used to create recycled products. I had not heard about this new Chinese declaration, which I think goes to show how some important environmental acts can get overshadowed in the sensationalized media. This greatly affects our ability in the US to make the massive amount of plastic we use not just waste but instead usable again. If we cannot keep up, then the “circular” economy of plastic will not hold true, and we will be overrun by the recyclables of the multitude of plastic being created currently by these companies.

It concerns me that more is not being done to stop these plastic companies from producing so much new “virgin” plastic. Because it is more expensive and time intensive to make materials from recycled materials, I believe the only way that this will become the norm is if sanctions are put on these companies so that they have to invest the energy/ money into recycling the massive amounts of plastic waste they create. Why should these companies not have at least a partial responsibility in all of the waste that they create? At one point will we put of foot down and stop the creation of new plastic, when we can reuse that which we have if we put in the extra time and effort? Will it be too late to realistically recycle much of this waste by the time it comes into the forefront of most people’s minds? I do not claim to know the answers to these questions. However, I believe that if we do not stand up as a country and work towards a solution, it could have dire consequences.

5 thoughts on “Where is all of our plastics going to go?

  1. With such a large waste issue especially with recyclables, the US could learn and adapt methods from Kamikatsu, Japan. Kamikatsu is a zero waste town in japan, where its members are conscious of their waste and how to properly dispose of it. Considering all the advancements the US makes, its time to make some in waste minimization!

  2. I agree that there needs to be some sort of regulation that creates an economic incentive to decrease plastic use. I had not heard about China’s ban on plastics either, until I learned about it in a class this semester. The problem is huge, and we need to figure out how to decrease our use of plastic, but we also need to be better at knowing how and what to recycle.

  3. It seems to me that the primary problem which is preventing the development of this circular economy of plastic is that it is not a necessarily lucrative endeavor. Unfortunately, or not, money rules the world so I believe the best way to further develop the domestic recycling industry, significant subsidies should be utilized to make the business of recycling more profitable and interesting for motivated entrepreneurs.

  4. Ive always wondered where my plastic recyclables were going. It’s hard to know if your recyclables actually make it to the repurposing stages. I think it is interesting how they are still making mass productions of plastics and not reusing the mass amounts already made! One would think that they would switch packaging materials to paper or require companies to regulate their usage of plastic productions. They should require companies to use a percentage of their plastics from recyclables.

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