Consumer Reports discusses what’s wrong with recycling. Of all the plastic ever produced—more than 10 billion tons of it—less than 10 percent has been recycled.
In the U.S., about 76 percent of plastic garbage goes into landfills, where it eventually breaks down into microplastics that contaminate the environment and potentially release problematic chemicals. An estimated 16 percent more is burned at very high temperatures, which produces greenhouse gases both during the incineration process and when those fossil fuels are used. An additional 1 percent of that total ends up littering our oceans, where sea life feeds and chokes on it, it breaks down into microplastics that end up in seafood, and it spreads even to the depths of the ocean floor.
Why isn’t more plastic recycled? Most plastic is less recyclable than people think. The very idea that recycling makes plastic use acceptable comes from plastics manufacturers, says Judith Enck, a former regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, now a visiting professor at Bennington College in Vermont and president of Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit focused on ending plastics pollution.
Yet while efforts like these are laudable, they aren’t enough to overtake the reality that companies keep pumping out more and more plastic. Global plastic production is expected to almost quadruple by 2050, according to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum (PDF). And because plastic is made from fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, the report calculated that by 2050, 20 percent of oil production would be for making plastic.