Why Recycle Plastic – The Most Disposable Materials in U.S.

When was the last time you bought a drink in a plastic bottle at the gas station? Chances are, you threw out that bottle when you were done—without a second thought. That’s what most of us do, even though all plastics can be recycled—and there are serious environmental consequences for throwing them away. Here are a few reasons why you should recycle that plastic drink bottle next time, instead of tossing it in the trash.

People in the U.S. throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles an hour.Plastic is one of the most disposable materials in U.S. culture. We throw away our milk bottles, soda bottles, water bottles, trash bags, grocery bags, product packaging, and more every day without giving it a second thought. Plastic makes up much of the streetside litter found in cities and throughout the countryside, and it’s rapidly filling up our landfills as well.

Making new plastic requires significant amounts of fossil fuels. Studies suggest that between 7% and 8% of the world’s fossil fuels are used in producing new plastics. This doesn’t sound like a great amount, but it accounts for millions of tons of fuels per year. Recycling could preserve these fuels—even reuse them in other markets.

Plastic is easy to recycle – although few people do it. All plastic can be recycled. But it’s not being recycled as much as it should be. Some studies show that only 10% of plastic bottles created are recycled, leaving that extra 90% to take up space in landfills and killing ocean life.

Plastic bottles take up space in landfills. Our country’s landfills are closing at a rate of around two per day. The landfill-space crisis is especially problematic in cities, where inner-city trash dumps are often filled to capacity, and surrounding communities are unwilling to allow new landfills to come to their neighborhoods. Many coastal cities use the ocean as a dumping ground, resulting in depleted fish stock, polluted beaches, and other health issues for the inhabitants. Plastic bottles make up approximately 11% of the contents of landfills.

Incinerating plastic contributes to greenhouse gases. To save space at landfills, plastics are often burned in incinerators. When this is done, chemicals, petroleum, and fossil fuels used in the manufacturing process are released into the atmosphere, adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Plastic in the oceans is responsible for the deaths of millions of sea animals. Plastic bottles floating on the surface of the oceans can look like food to larger sea life—often with fatal consequences. In addition, fish, sea birds, and other ocean creatures often get caught in plastic rings that strangle them or constrict their throats so that they cannot swallow.

Plastic takes a long time to degrade. Nobody is quite sure how long it takes for plastic to biodegrade—it hasn’t been around long enough, and the first plastics made are still around today. Scientists believe, however, that plastics will take hundreds of years to degrade fully—if not longer. Plastics as we know them have only been around a hundred years, and they are already a problem. Imagine five hundred years’ worth of plastics in our landfills.

Plastics contain harmful chemicals. These include cadmium, lead, PVC, and other pollutants in the form of artificial coloring, plasticizers, and stabilizers. Some of these have been discovered to be harmful and are not in currently-manufactured plastics, but the older, more toxic plastics are still filling up our landfills and floating around in our oceans, releasing pollutants into the environment. These can seep into groundwater from landfill runoff and cause health risks for both wildlife and humans.

Recycling plastic saves energy. Studies show that the energy saved by recycling a single plastic bottle—as compared to producing a new one from scratch—is enough to power a single 60-watt bulb for six hours. Think of those 2.5 million bottles thrown away per hour in the U.S.—we could practically power our homes on the energy savings we’d gain by recycling every one of those plastic bottles.

Recycled plastic is useful. Recycled plastic is found in many unexpected places—including carpeting, the fuzz on tennis balls, scouring pads, paintbrushes, clothes, industrial strapping, shower stalls, drainpipes, flowerpots, and lumber. It also contains oils that could be recycled and reused as fossil fuels.

The bottom line why we should recyle plastic is this: recycling plastic is a good idea. It’s good for the environment, good for energy savings, good for the health of wildlife and humans alike. So next time you buy a bottle of soda or water, don’t just throw it in the trash. Recycle it—and do one small thing for the environment. If you do this every time you buy a bottled drink, your small contributions will definitely add up to a big difference.


Articles written by staff are typically freelancers, people knowledgeable in their fields.

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