One good reason to recycle plastic is that there is just so much of it.
Plastics are used to manufacture an incredible number of products we use every day, such as beverage and food containers, trash bags and grocery bags, plastic cups and utensils, children’s toys and diapers, and bottles for everything from mouthwash and shampoo to glass cleaner and dishwashing liquid. And that’s not even counting all the plastic that goes into furniture, appliances, computers and automobiles.
The Need for Plastics Recycling is Growing
As the use of plastics has increased over the years, they have become a larger part of the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream—growing from less than 1 percent in 1960 to approximately 12 percent in 2008.
As an example of how and why plastic waste is increasing, the Beverage Marketing Corporation reports that the average American consumed 28.3 gallons of bottled water in 2006, up from 1.6 gallons in 1976. The United States is the world’s leading consumer of bottled water: Americans buy 28 billion bottles of water annually, and 70 to 80 percent of those bottles end up in landfills.
Recycling Plastics Conserves Energy and Natural Resources
Recycling plastics reduces the amount of energy and natural resources (such as water, petroleum and natural) needed to create virgin plastic. According to the American Plastics Council, the production of plastics accounts for 4 percent of U.S. energy consumption, and 70 percent of plastics in the United States are made from domestic natural gas.
Recycling Plastics Saves Landfill Space
Recycling plastic products also keeps them out of landfills and allows the plastics to be reused in manufacturing new products. Recycling one ton of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space. And let’s face it, a lot of plastic ends up directly in the environment, breaking down into tiny pieces, polluting our soil and water, and contributing to the ocean’s Great Garbage Patches.
Recycling Plastics is Relatively Easy
Recycling plastics has never been easier. Today, 80 percent of Americans have easy access to a plastics recycling program, whether they participate in a municipal curbside program or live near a drop-off site. A universal numbering system for plastic types makes it even easier.
According to the American Plastics Council, more than 1,800 U.S. businesses handle or reclaim post-consumer plastics. In addition, many grocery stores now serve as recycling collection sites for plastic bags and plastic wrap.
Plastics Recycling: Room for Improvement
Overall, plastics recycling is still relatively low. In 2008, only about 6.8 percent of plastics in the municipal solid waste stream were recycled—about 2.1 million tons of the 30 tons of plastic waste generated that year.