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Sensible U.S. action needed for recycling plastics

Around 80 percent of the United States population has access to some type of recycling program. These programs are widely available at our homes, businesses, and in public locations. Despite the ease of access to recycling, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that in 2011, less than 35 percent of U.S. households and 10 percent of businesses recycled. 

Even with incremental improvements to participation, the U.S. wastes an enormous amount of time, money, physical space, energy, and raw materials by not recycling.

{mosads}Plastics makeup roughly 13 percent of municipal solid waste in the U.S. This is a number that has continued to grow over the last half century. Plastics have become a foundational part of everyday life. They are found in containers, appliances, machinery, furniture, and anything in between. 

In 2012, the EPA reports that just 9 percent of the total plastics generated were recovered for recycling. That is an enormous and unacceptable amount of recyclable plastics that ended up in landfills and the environment rather than being utilized for reproduction. 

Waste Management Inc. cites that creating plastics from recycled plastics rather than raw materials saves roughly 88 percent of the energy used in the process. Even if some natural resources are required in the generation of new plastics, the energy saved by using recyclables goes a long way for both the economy and the environment. It is an economical no-brainer to recycle plastics, yet the U.S. continues to lack sufficient participation. 

The invention of plastic was in many ways its own environmental breakthrough. 

Plastics are durable and often much lighter than materials such a glass or metal. This allowed for a reduction in fuel and energy costs when shipping anything packaged in plastic rather than heavier materials. But, all of the benefits that plastics may provide are negated when we do not commit to recycling them at the end of their use.

On average, Americans throw away 2.5 million #1 PET and #2 HDPE plastic containers per hour. This number reaches astronomically into the billions when a yearly average is taken. When plastic is not recycled, it either ends up in landfills or eventually makes its way into our oceans, where plastics make up the vast majority of all waste polluting the oceans. 

The unimpressive state of recycling plastics does leave room for one thing – improvement. 

There is almost infinite economic and environmental potential when it comes to the recycling industry. Each year, around half a billion dollars is wasted through improper disposal of recyclable plastics. That is just plastics; we haven’t even begun to consider aluminum, paper, glass, and other materials. Along with the staggering economic drain, not recycling plastics creates unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions in the generation of new plastics. Greater participation in recycling programs means a healthier economy, environment, and job market. 

According to the EPA, the recycling and reuse industry account for over 1 million U.S. jobs and federal, state, and local tax revenues in the billions annually. While greater industry and infrastructure around recycling would be beneficial, a radical change in industry is not yet needed to solve our problems with recycling. 

The initial solution is simple – greater participation and use of current recycling programs.

A 9 percent recycle rate for plastics is appalling. It is a waste of recycling infrastructure, a drain on the economy, and sends the absolute wrong message to future generations when considering our relationship with the natural world. Being both economically and environmentally conscious when it comes to recycling is not difficult, but it does need to be done.

Floyd is the program coordinator at the Clean Fairfax Council, working to promote urban sustainability in Fairfax County, Virginia. He is also the author of PANIC: One Man’s Struggle with Anxiety and holds a Master of Public Administration from Virginia Commonwealth University.


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