Plastic is rarely recycled and instead creates pollution by way of landfills and incinerators.

Disposal of Plastics

Low recycling rates: Plastic is difficult and costly to recycle because manufacturers and consumers discard over twenty different types of plastic, and before they can be recycled, these plastics must be collected, transported, sorted, degreased, and washed. Neither private nor public agencies are investing sufficiently in the systems needed to increase plastic recycling rates. Few manufacturers invest in the compactors and logistical systems needed to recycle their plastic scraps. Few public agencies invest in recycling receptacles for public spaces. A 2009 survey by Keep America Beautiful found that only 12% of public spaces in the U.S. had recycling receptacles next to their garbage receptacles.1 Due to these shortfalls of private and public investments in recycling, the EPA found that only 7.1% of plastics going to US Municipal Solid Waste facilities were being recycled in 2009,2 a number that rose to 8.2% by 2010.3

Plastics in different resin categories are recycled at widely different rates, ranging from 0% to 20.7% in 20092:

Percentages of plastics recovered for recycling from Municipal Solid Waste facilities in the United States in 20092
Resin Category Resin type Percent Recovered
1 PET 20.7%
2 HDPE 11.3%
3 PVC 0%
4 LDPE/LLDPE 5.1%
5 PP 0.9%
6 PS 0.8%
7 Other 7.2%
All plastics All plastics 7.1%

PVC plastic (“vinyl”) is especially hard to recover through recycling because pure PVC must be combined with a wide variety of additives during its production to make it into a substance that is useful for manufacturing. Pure PVC is routinely combined with stabilizers that contain dangerous substances like lead and other heavy metals, and with plasticizers that contain phthalates, fungicides, and many other deadly chemicals.4 Due to these additives, PVC products are especially impractical and expensive to recycle, which is reflected in the 2009 PVC recycling rate of essentially 0%.2


Even the “best” plastic recycling rate – 20.7% of PET plastic in 2009 – represents trouble.2 This rate is actually worse than the 23% of PET plastic that was recycled in 2006.5 Moreover, PET plastic is rarely recycled in a closed-loop manner, in which discarded PET products are recycled into similar PET products. For example, only 5% of PET plastic water bottles are made from recycled PET.6 More typically, PET is recycled into products with a higher tolerance for impurities – like carpet fibers or filler for comforters.5 Even with its “high” recycling rate, 2.8 million tons of PET plastic were abandoned as garbage in US Municipal Solid Waste facilities in 2009.2

Land-Fills: Thirty-one million tons of plastic arrived at U.S. Municipal Solid Waste facilities in 2010, and over 90% of that plastic arrived for a permanent stay – it will not be recycled, and it will not biodegrade.3 Plastic is a rapidly growing fraction of US garbage. Initially less than 1% of municipal solid waste in 1960, plastic had grown to 12.4% of the total weight of garbage arriving at U.S. landfills by 2010.7 Containers and packaging – products essentially designed to be garbage – account for the largest portion of plastic waste, weighing 12.5 million tons in 2009.2

From 1986 to 2009, the number of waste disposal facilities in the U.S. dropped by 75%. This drop was due largely to the passage of the Resource Allocation and Recovery Act of 1976 by Congress.8 This new law forced a shift in U.S. solid waste disposal practices from unregulated “dumps” to regulated “landfills,” sites which are required to be lined with layers of plastic or clay, and to dispose of facilities’ liquid and gaseous emissions according to designated procedures. While these new waste storage practices are relatively sound, there is still an environmental price to pay. By redirecting garbage away from a system of 7,683 local dumps (1986) to a system of 1,908 regional landfills (2009), that garbage needed to travel further.8 Nearly 180,000 trucks are now transporting garbage each day throughout the U.S., driving an average of 25,000 miles per truck each year, burning all together a total of 1.5 billion gallons of fuel annually, and spewing pollution and greenhouse gasses along the way.9

Moreover, despite the advantages that “landfills” have over “dumps,” they are prone to failures. In a 2000 survey, over 80% of landfills were found to have leaks in their liners, which become brittle, swell, and break down over time. These leaks create the potential for solid waste pollution and hazardous chemicals to leach into local groundwater.10

The ever-increasing amount of plastic that goes to U.S. landfills each year is a significant factor in the increasing number of “garbage miles” that are driven each year and the increasing number of landfills that are straining to contain the weight of their contents.

Incinerators: About 14% of discarded plastics are incinerated in municipal facilities.2 Trash incineration is highly polluting, releasing acids gases, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, metals, dioxins and furans, and at least 190 volatile organic compounds – many of which are not monitored – into the environment.11 Burning trash is the most expensive solid waste management technology on the market, with over a quarter of capital costs spent trying to control pollution from incinerators. These facilities must also support adjacent landfills, since a quarter of the volume of trash that is burned in incinerators still remains afterwards as ash, which still requires disposal.11

Unless done under tightly controlled conditions at very high temperatures, the burning of plastic releases over 90 different compounds into the atmosphere, including dioxins, dangerous chlorine-based chemicals, and styrene-based toxins.12 Exposure to these toxins can cause skin diseases, reproductive and developmental problems, immune system damage, liver damage and cancer.13

Plastic is a durable substance and resists easy disposal. It is hard to recycle, noxious to burn, and bulky to transport. Once placed in a landfill, the actions of sun, wind, water, and time can pry it loose to enter the environment again as pollution.

Page Notes:

  1. Litter in America: 2009 National Research Findings and Recommendations; P. Wesley Schultz and Steven R. Stein; Keep America Beautiful, Inc.; http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=pressreleases_12_3_09; December 2009.
  2. Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures; United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste; December 2010.
  3. Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010; United States Environmental Protection Agency; December 2011.
  4. PVC: The Most Toxic Plastic; Children’s Health Environmental Coalition; http://www.highcountryconservation.org/pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%20PVC.pdf; Retrieved 7/30/12.
  5. Bottled Water University Edition: Social & Environmental; Responsible Purchasing Network; http://www.responsiblepurchasing.org/purchasing_guides/bottled_water_university_edition/social_environ/, retrieved 6/30/12.
  6. PET (polyethylene terephthalate); Environmental Impact, http://envimpact.org/node/14; Retrieved 6/30/12.
  7. Municipal Solid Waste; United States Environmental Protection Agency; http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/; Retrieved February 10, 2012.
  8. Landfills are safer than dumps, but trash must travel farther to reach them, Brian Palmer; The Washington Post; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/21/AR2011022102609.html; February 21, 2011.
  9. Facts on Greening Garbage Trucks: New Technologies for Cleaner Air; Deborah Gordon, Juliet Burdelski, and James S. Cannon; INFORM; http://www.informinc.org/pages/research/sustainable-transportation/reports/119.html; 2003.
  10. Landfills: Hazardous to the Environment; Zero Waste America; http://www.zerowasteamerica.org/Landfills.htm; Retrieved February 10, 2012.
  11. Testimony on Maryland House Bill 1121 Renewable Energy Portfolio: Waste-to-Energy; Brenda Platt; Institute for Local Self-Reliance; www.ilsr.org; March 9, 2011.
  12. Toxicological Review of the Products of Combustion; J. C. Wakefield; Health Protection Agency, Oxfordshire, England; www.hpa.org.uk/webc/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1267025520632; February 2010.
  13. Toxic Substances Portal: Toxicological Profiles; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control; http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/index.asp; retrieved July 12, 2012.

 

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