Plastics Recycling Remains Low

Plastic is one of the fastest growing parts of the waste stream and among the most expensive discarded material to manage. The plastics recycling rate of 6.9% is the lowest of all major materials (compared to 51.6% for paper, 36.3% for metals, and 21.8% for glass). [US Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste in the United States, 2006 Facts and Figures,] In 1960, single-use plastic packaging was 0.14% of the waste stream (120,000 tons). In less than one generation, it has grown to 5.7% and 14,230,000 tons per year [US EPA, 2006 data].


The Recycling Myth

Collecting plastics at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, these will be converted into new similar objects. This is not the case with plastic. The best we can hope for plastics is that these will be turned into other products such as doormats, textiles, plastic lumber, etc. These products will still end at some point in the landfill – and do not stem the need for more virgin petroleum product.

This is not recycling, but down-cycling.

But not even down-cycling is happening. In the US, 93% of plastics are NOT recovered (put in plastic “recycling” bins). These go straight to landfills. PET bottles that have a redemption value (cash value) fare a bit better: 62% are NOT recovered. (EPA data 2008)

How big is the problem?  How much waste is generated by single use plastic bottles?

Artist Chris Jordan offers the following visualizations. Imagine 8 football fields covered thickly with plastic bottles: this is  the equivalent to the number of plastic beverage bottles discarded in the US every five minutes (data: 2009). Now imagine a line of plastic water bottles going around the planet five times. This would be equivalent to the number of plastic bottles discarded every week in the US, just for water! (data: 2009) Plastic pollution will not be solved by encouraging “recycling”.  Perpetuating the myth of plastic recycling delays the adoption of effective and sustainable solutions, such as extended producer responsibility and the elimination out of single-use plastics.

Please visit Plastic Free Times for great resources on recycling.


Ocean Clean-ups

By most estimates, hundreds of millions of metric tons of plastic debris currently floats in the ocean.  The plastic is fragmented into small pieces, scattered throughout the water column.   There are no visible islands of trash anywhere, but rather a ocean soup laced with plastic. This makes cleaning the oceans a very difficult proposition, technically or economically.  Any cleanup has the potential to not only remove the plastics but also the plankton, which is the base of the food chain, and is responsible for capturing half of the CO2 of our atmosphere and generating half of the oxygen we need to breathe. We applaud the efforts of any group inspired by a vision of clean oceans and healthy sealife, and working to put an end to plastic pollution.  But we also caution that these efforts would only succeed if we work together to stop the millions of metric tons of plastic that is dumped into the ocean each year. Plastic Pollution Coalition believes in stopping plastic pollution at the source. This is something we can do now.


Bioplastics are just plastics made from plants. Bioplastics may or may not be biodegradable, may or may not be toxic. Plastic is the result of a complex  process called polymerization. The building blocks for this process are atoms of carbon and hydrogen. These can be obtained from oil, gas, or plant materials. The use of plant materials does not imply that the resulting polymer will be better. You could make non-biodegradable and toxic plastic out of organic corn! There is a lot of chemistry and additives involved in making plastic, and the industry formulas are not transparent. Some bioplastics (not all), are biodegradable and/or compostable.  Currently there are not independent standards for what “biodegradable plastic” means, and some plastics that claim to be ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ may take many years to decompose or may require special high-heat composting facilities (which are uncommon). Some of these “biodegradable plastics” decompose extremely slowly in regular conditions, and even more slowly in the ocean.  And even biodegradable plastics require the use of plasticizing chemicals, which may be toxic and harmful to the environment, or to human health. If properly designed, biodegradable plastics have the  potential to become a much preferable alternative to conventional plastics. At a minimum, these bioplastics must be: derived from non-food, non-GMO grain compostable and biodegradable free of toxins during the manufacturing and recycling process

manufactured in a sustainable way (water, land and chemical use are considerations)

recyclable in a cradle-to-cradle cycle. Still, even with the advent of a new-generation bioplastic, manufacturing single-use and disposable objects may be preferable but ultimately may not be a sustainable solution.  With almost 7 billion people in the planet, a throwaway culture addicted to disposable plastics is likely to continue harming our environment, whether these are made out of oil, or of plants. We  believe that rethinking our habits and our uses of plastic is as important as rethinking the material itself.
For more information and data on bioplastics, please visit


The Human Impact

Plastic bottles contain Bisphenol A (BPA), the chemical used to make the plastic hard and clear. BPA is an endocrine disruptor which has been proven to be hazardous to human health. It has been strongly linked to a host of health problems including certain types of cancer, neurological difficulties, early puberty in girls, reduced fertility in women, premature labour, and defects in newborn babies – to name a few examples. BPA enters the human body through exposure to plastics such as bottled drinks and cleaning products. It has been found in significant amounts in at-risk groups such as pregnant women’s placentas and growing foetuses. A study conducted last year found that 96% of women in the U.S have BPA in their bodies.


The good news is that you can have your BPA levels measured and make lifestyle changes to lower them, as demonstrated by Jeb Berrier in his film about plastic consumer merchandise, Bag It.

Bottled drinks also contain phthalates, which are commonly used in the U.S. to make plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible. Phthalates are also endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have been linked to a wide range of developmental and reproductive effects, including reduced sperm count, testicular abnormality and tumors, and gender development issues. The FDA does not regulate phthalates or class them as a health hazard due to the supposedly minute amounts present in plastic bottles. This decision does not take into account the significant presence of plastics in the average American citizen’s daily life, the fact that phthalate concentration increases the longer a plastic water bottle is stored, or the fact that a bottled drink that is exposed to heat causes accelerated leaching of harmful plastic chemicals into the drink.


In addition to the negative impacts of BPA and phthalates on human health there are also growing concerns regarding carcinogens and microbial contaminants that have been found in test samples of bottled water.

Bottling plants also cause problems for the humans who live near them. Water extraction surrounding bottling plants involved millions of gallons of water to make the bottles.  This often leads to local water shortages that affects nearby residents, especially farmers who need to provide food for the surrounding neighborhoods.


The Animal Impact

Plastic bottle tops are currently not recyclable, and as with plastic bags they often end up at the bottom of the ocean, and in the stomachs of a variety of animal species that mistake them for food. One albatross that was recently found dead on a Hawaiian island had a stomach full of 119 bottle caps.

Marine life falls prey to this problem on a daily basis. A sperm whale was found dead on a North American beach recently with a plastic gallon bottle which had gummed up its small intestine. The animal’s body was full of plastic material including other plastic bottles, bottle caps and plastic bags.


The Environmental Impact

Plastic bottles are made from a petroleum product known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and they require huge amounts of fossil fuels to both make and transport them. In the 1970s the U.S. was the world’s largest exporter of oil, but now it is the largest importer. If you fill a plastic bottle with liquid so that it is 25% full, that’s roughly how much oil it took to make the bottle. For a single-use disposable item, that’s a lot.


It’s harder to recycle plastic bottles than you think. Of the mass numbers of plastic bottles consumed throughout the world, most of them are not recycled because only certain types of plastic bottles can be recycled by certain municipalities. They either end up lying stagnant in landfills, leaching dangerous chemicals into the ground, or they infiltrate our streets as litter. They are found on sidewalks, in parks, front yards and rivers, and even if you chop them into tiny pieces they still take more than a human lifetime to decompose.

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Reseach by Gabi Foster

1. The production of plastic begins with a distillation process in an oil refinery.
The distillation process involves the separation of heavy crude oil into lighter groups called fractions. Each fraction is a mixture of hydrocarbon chains which differ in terms of the size and structure of their molecules. One of these fractions, naphtha, is the crucial element for the production of plastics.

The two major processes used to produce plastics are called polymerisation and polycondensation, and they both require specific catalysts. (

2. BPA is an endocrine distruptor which has been proven to be hazardous to human helath. It has been strongly linked to a host of health problems including certain types of cancer, neurological difficulties, early puberty in girls, reduced fertility in women, premature labour and defects in newborn babies. BPA enters the human body through exposure to plastics such as bottled drinks and cleaning products. (

3. Burning plastic releases toxic heavy metals and chemicals. BPA and phthalates are just two substances that have been getting a lot of attention because of their now known harmful effects. BPA is a common synthetic chemical found in plastics, food can linings, beverage can linings, and other consumer products, which interferes with human hormones. We know that phthalates, a class of chemicals used to soften plastics and to carry fragrance and scent in many everyday products, have been linked to birth defects and are harmful to reproductive systems. (