Recycling

plastic recyclingSpokespeople for the plastic industry are fond of pointing to recycling as the solution to the plastic pollution problem. However, not all types of plastic can be recycled, the recycling process can be energy intensive and wasteful, and environmentalists worry that putting the emphasis on recycling does nothing to stem the tide of new plastic entering the world. Moreover, recycling rates for plastic are notoriously low. 

30 million tons of plastic waste were generated in the U.S. in 2009, representing 12.3 percent of total municipal solid waste. In 2009, the United States generated 13 million tons of plastics as containers and packaging, almost 11 million tons as durable goods, such as appliances, and almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, for example plates and cups. (Source: EPA) Only 7 percent of the total plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2009 was recovered for recycling. (Source: EPA)

Recycling rates for plastic bottles are higher than other plastic packaging, but are still around 20% (the industry puts it at 27%, but according to the Container Recycling Institute, it’s more like 20% --bottle caps and labels are included in the industry stats, but are not actually recycled. And while manufacturers often announce their intent to use recycled content in bottles, across major bottlers the average usage is 4% recycled content. (Source: Container Recycling Institute)

 

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Studies

Hopewell, J., R. Dvorak, et al. (2009). "Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526: 2115-2126.

Lotfi, Ahmad. (2009). “Plastic Recycling.” Nottingham Trent University.

Lubick, Naomi. (2007). "Plastics from the Breadbasket." Environmental Science and Technology: 6639-6640.

Lubick, Naomi. (2012). "Plastic's Polluted Burden: ES&T's Top Policy Analysis Article 2011." Environmental Science and Technology: 46(7) pp. 3607-8.

Kuczenski B, Geyer R. (2009).LCA and Recycling Policy — A Case Study in Plastic.” Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

Sharp, Laura. (2005). "Plastics Recycling." BBC Research. Research Code PLS031A.

Tabone M, Cregg J, Beckman E, Landis A. (2010). "Sustainability Metrics: Life Cycle Assessment and Green Design in Polymers." Environmental Science and Technology 44. 21: 8264-8269.

Tukker A, de Groot H, Simons L, Wiegersma S. (1999). “Chemical Recycling of Plastic Wastes." TNO Report, TNO Institute of Strategy.

van Beukering, Pieter. (1999). “Plastics Recycling in China - an international life cycle approach.” The Institute for Environmental Studies.

 

Articles

 

Bottle Recycling Plan is Left at the Curb, Wall Street Journal, August 2011

Film Collection Rising, Exports Still High, Plastics News, March 2011

Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling - The Ecology Center

Plastic Bag Industry in Fight for Its Life, Plastics News, March 2009

Recycling Plastic: What a Waste, Huffington Post, September 2009

Is Recycling Worth It?, Popular Mechanics, November 2008

Why Can't We Recycling All this Plastic?, BBC, September 2003

Researchers Develop New Plastic Recycling Process, Science Daily, April 2003

 

Books

Ackerman, F. (1997). Why Do We Recycle : Markets, Values, and Public Policy. Washington, D.C., Island Press.