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Understanding The History of the Plastic Waste Problem: How Much Plastic Is Actually Recycled?

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

how much plastic is recycled

It’s hard to believe that the mass production of plastic only started six decades ago. Production has increased exponentially, leaving us with over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic to deal with. Does that sound like an overwhelming amount? That’s because it is.

While we attempt to wrap our heads around the vast volumes of plastic we need to deal with, it makes sense to look for solutions. For many, the first idea that comes to mind is recycling. We’re told that if we prioritize recycling the hoards of plastic we’re surrounded by, surely we can make a dent in this figure, but is that true?

In theory, that could work. But how much plastic is actually recycled? According to the OECD, less than 10% of the plastic used worldwide is recycled. Plastic production and plastic use have doubled since 2000, and it feels like we’re not making any headway in our plastic waste problem. Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers, unpacking the stats behind what happens to plastic waste, particularly single-use plastics.

A brief history of how much plastic is recycled

Let’s start with a trip down memory lane. Before plastic was invented, we used “natural plastics” like horn, tortoiseshell, amber, rubber, and shellac to create products. By the mid-19th century, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and animal-derived materials became increasingly scarce. The increased demand negatively impacted the environment, with elephants and turtles facing extinction. Inventors took to the challenge, looking for semi-synthetic alternatives to curb the environmental effects and make equally attractive, more affordable substitutes.

The initial inventions utilized natural substances like cork, blood, and milk in their material make-up. Cellulose nitrate was one of the first materials courtesy of Alexander Parkes. Patented as Parkesine, it was made from cotton fibers dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acid, combined with vegetable oil. Considered the first manufactured plastic, it was a cheap and colorful substitute for ivory. Some of the first “plastic” products include combs and billiard balls, making them more affordable for the average consumer.

The 20th century saw a new age for plastic production with the first appearance of entirely synthetic materials. Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland was the first to the patent office with his invention known as Bakelite. Created under heat and pressure using formaldehyde and phenol, Bakelite sparked the first consumer boom in highly desirable products. It was easily mass-produced and fed into the Art Deco trend.

In 1932, the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) had its first significant success with the invention of Perspex. They stumbled on the discovery by accident when an experiment failed. It turned out that combining ethylene and benzaldehyde under tremendous pressure and heat produced a groundbreaking polymer thanks to a small oxygen leak. And thus, polyethylene was born.

From here, the story becomes less linear. Plastic production exploded across multiple industries and in a variety of use cases. What began with inexpensive materials to create beautiful items for long-term use transitioned to the humble plastic bag, Tupperware, Nylon, and Teflon. Before we knew it, plastic was everywhere.

What about plastic production today?

Over the years, plastic has continued to transform into more variations. Plastic wrap, used initially as a protective spray for fighter jets, became Saran wrap. Styrofoam was born as a solution for insulating buildings and has since become one of the most common packaging materials. Let’s face it. Plastic has become a daily and, sadly, disposable staple.

Global plastic production doubled from 2000 to 2019, reaching 460 million tons. How much plastic waste is produced each year? Shockingly, we’re almost on the same number, producing an astronomical 380 million tons yearly. What’s worse, 50% of that is for single-use purposes. We’re looking at hundreds of years of pollution for an item used for a few minutes. If our current trends continue, by 2050, there’ll be 12 billion tons of plastic in landfills.

When did plastic become a problem?

Ironically, scientists identified the adverse effects of plastic in the late 1960s and early 70s, a few years after Tupperware parties hit their stride. A study on plankton revealed the first signs of plastic pollution and, more alarmingly, the presence of microplastics within an organism. The study indicated a significant increase from 1960 to 1970, with a growing trend emerging by 2016.

Perhaps what’s most disturbing is the frustrating parallel between plastic production and pollution. Inevitably, as plastic production boomed, so did waste. But the signs were there early on. We’ve known since the ‘60s that something wasn’t right, but the demand for affordable and durable materials outweighed the discoveries from a small circle of scientists.

Thankfully, this circle of scientists has grown significantly over the years, and the world has been forced to take a step back. Solutions to comprehensive waste management are top of mind, and plastic alternatives are more important than ever. We’re bombarded with buzzwords like “bio-degradable” and “recycling,” but it’s not always clear what their true impact is.

What is recycling?

By definition, recycling is the action or process of converting waste into reusable material. There are three types of recycling.

1.Primary recycling

Primary recycling is where a recyclable material or product can be recovered or reused without altering or changing its current state. More often than not, primary recyclables are repurposed for the same use. Examples of this include glassware, toys, cars, and electronics.

2. Secondary recycling

Secondary recycling refers to materials that are repurposed without reprocessing. Unlike primary recycling, they are reused differently than initially intended. You would probably refer to this as “upcycling.” Think D-I-Y crafts and creative re-inventions.

3. Tertiary recycling

Finally, we have tertiary recycling. This is what we think of when we think of the processing that happens in an actual recycling facility. This involves the structural altering of products to create something new. The products are processed by a public or private facility which requires cleaning, sorting, and chemical intervention. It’s certainly the more complex of the three.

That covers the process, but what about the materials? Paper and cardboard recycling gained momentum in the ‘80s and ‘90s to save trees. For every ton of paper or cardboard that’s successfully recycled, 17 trees are saved. Today, almost 75% of paper is recycled, positively impacting the environment enormously.

Unfortunately, plastic recycling isn’t quite the same success story. Off the bat, it’s a lot more complex. There are seven different types of plastic to consider, and not all of them are recyclable. Let’s take a look at the list.

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE): One of the most commonly used plastics. It is lightweight, strong, and typically transparent. Example products include water bottles, food bottles, and polyester clothing.

  • High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Polyethylene is classified into high-density, low-density, and linear low-density. High-density polyethylene is the strongest. It’s resistant to both water and chemicals, making it a common material for cartons, containers, and pipes.

  • Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): A softer version of HDPE often used as a liner inside packaging or a corrosion-resistant coating on surfaces.

  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl): Resistant to chemicals and weathering, PVC is incredibly hard and rigid. Better yet, it doesn’t conduct electricity, making it a common material in high-tech applications. Despite its benefits, PVC is one of the most harmful plastics to human health, leaching lead, dioxins, and vinyl chloride, all of which are dangerous toxins.

  • Polypropylene (PP): Known as one of the most durable types of plastic, PP is used for heat-resistant objects. Think bottle caps, straws, hot food containers, and packaging tape.

  • Polystyrene (PS, EPS or Styrofoam): This rigid plastic offers lightweight insulation, making it a top performer in the construction and food industries. Like PVC, Styrofoam is known for its adverse effects on human health, leaching harmful toxins that are often ingested.

  • Other: This catches all the types of plastic that don’t fall within the above. It’s an elusive category that’s a problem in itself, given that these plastics are typically non-recyclable.

Once you’ve navigated the signs and symbols on your plastic item, you throw it away. It’s picked up by the local authorities and transferred into the hands of the global waste industry. It takes a trip to a waste-sorting facility where the plastics are batched and baled into easily transportable, space-saving cubes. Here, some types of technically recyclable plastics always don’t make the cut.

From here, it’s transported to a recycling facility via air, road, or cargo ship. Once it arrives, it’s melted down with fresh plastic to restore its desirable properties, and the whole process begins again. When you look at it this way, it’s not really a solution, is it?

The plastic waste problem

OECD’s 2019 report revealed that 50% of the world’s plastic waste goes to landfills. 19% was incinerated, causing additional environmental issues, and 22% was disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites. So, what percentage of plastic is recycled? That leaves a mere 9% that gets recycled. Even then, we know the recycling process itself is flawed.

The US alone generates 40 million tons of plastic a year. In 2021 only two million tons, a meager 5%, were recycled. 85% of plastic waste is in landfills, with only 10% incinerated. On top of that, the US can’t recycle its plastic, and there’s no intention to build more facilities.

Ultimately, the plastic waste problem is a waste management problem. The plastic slowly “decomposes” in our landfills and oceans which takes centuries, and even then, it will never entirely disappear. The polymer chains found in plastic only break down properly during a chemical recycling process. But, there aren’t enough facilities to make this a sustainable solution. And, Let’s face it, today’s consumer is so confused by what’s recyclable and what’s not that they eventually just chuck it in the trash, hoping for the best.

If recycling will have the impact we need, it has to be a key focus in the waste management industry. Facilities must be more accessible, and consumer education or clarity needs to be a top priority. Moreover, plastic production should be constrained to recyclable types, reducing the consistent influx of single-use, non-recyclable materials.

What else can we do?

It’s easy to look at the stats on recycling and feel helpless. However, there are other solutions to consider. You’ve heard of the three Rs. Well, recycling is only one of them. There’s also “reduce” and “reuse.” If we’re trying to eradicate the plastic waste problem, “reduce” is most certainly top of the list. Plenty of plastic alternatives have emerged in the last few years, making it easier for consumers to make better choices.

Cruz Foam is a genuine solution if you’re looking to replace any EPS (aka Styrofoam) or EPE-type products. Cruz Foam’s earth-friendly product is derived from all naturally occurring materials. It’s a far cry from the chemical polymers you’ll find in polystyrene, with the same protection and performance. Instead of breaking down into microplastics, Cruz Foam decomposes into high-quality organic waste. It’s nutrient-rich instead of toxic.

The material itself can be manipulated to suit your needs, allowing you to produce packaging alternatives at scale without the added costs. One of Cruz Foam’s goals is to simplify change, boasting a frictionless transition for your business. Contact us today and see how we can work together.

The Takeaway

In theory, recycling is a great solution to our plastic problems. But, most of us don’t know the reality of what happens to plastic waste. It’s eye-opening to see how much plastic gets recycled and why there’s such a flaw in our waste management process. Recycling seems like the silver bullet solution, given its success with paper production. However, we can’t equate the same numbers to plastic. The recycling process itself is inherently more complicated for consumers and facilities alike.

If we’re going to tackle the plastic problem, we need to understand the history and the details of plastic and recycling. Familiarize yourself with the seven plastic types and make informed choices as a consumer. Focus on ways to reduce your plastic use, incorporate alternatives wherever possible, and support brands that do the same.

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