By ROGER WARBURTON/ecoRI News contributor
About 70 percent of all plastics end up in a landfill. Some 14 percent is recycled. About 16 percent is incinerated. These figures don’t include the plastics swimming in waterways, hanging from trees, and blowing around vacant lots.
Also, those little triangles at the bottom of plastics with numbers inside don’t actually mean much. They’re nothing more than a con job by the plastics industry and fossil-fuel companies — a green marketing tool to manipulate the public.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging were generated in 2018. This tonnage doesn’t include single-service plates and cups and trash bags, which are classified as nondurable goods.
In contrast to plastics, about 97 percent of corrugated boxes are recycled. In 2018, 32.1 million tons of corrugated boxes were recycled out of 33.9 million tons of total produced, according to the EPA.
Other paper and paper products include milk and juice cartons, boxes, bags, and wrapping papers. The overall recycling rate for all those paper products was 81 percent in 2018, according to the American Forest and Paper Association. A small proportion was burned — 4 percent — and only 15 percent ended up in a landfill.
China shut its doors to plastic trash more than two years ago, and most recycling operations now have no option but to dump much of this collected material in a landfill.
The issue of overwhelming plastic pollution was brought into focus last year. PBS’s Frontline produced a documentary called Plastic Wars, which explored how, in the 1990s and 2000s, much of this waste was shipped overseas to be recycled in China.
An investigation by NPR found that the chemical industry knew that plastic recycling wouldn’t work, but it was — and still is — making billions of dollars selling the world new plastics. The public was conned into believing that recycling would keep plastic out of landfills — and the environment.
In the mid-1970s there was serious doubt as to whether recycling plastic could ever be economically viable. By the 1980s, the industry was in a crisis, as there was too much plastic waste. Congress was considering legislation to ban or curb the use of plastics. The public was upset.
As a result, the chemical industry began a $50-million-a-year advertising campaign that encouraged consumers to recycle. Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont, and their lobbyists spent tens of millions of dollars on ads, and ran them for years, even while knowing recycling was a mostly fruitless endeavor.
There are several fundamental problems with plastic recycling. While some plastics can be turned into new things, collecting it, sorting it, and melting it is expensive. There are hundreds of types of plastics, and they can’t be melted down together. Also, plastic degrades each time it’s reused and can’t be reused more than once or twice.
These problems have been known for decades and less than 10 percent of all plastic has ever been recycled.
Plastics are hugely profitable. The fossil-fuel industry makes more than $400 billion annually manufacturing plastic, and, as demand for gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum products declines, the industry is telling shareholders that future profits will increasingly come from plastic.
Analysts now expect plastic production to triple by 2050.