What Really Happens to the Plastic You Recycle?

We reduce, reuse and recycle, and still our plastic bottle caps and doodads kill fuzzy baby wildlife by the legion. What more can we do?

This video illustrates one big part of the problem in under four minutes and with few words. A multi-hanky experience, it captures the lives and deaths of albatrosses so young they are still cloaked in downy gray feathers. The footage, which is a trailer for an upcoming movie by Chris Jordan called Midway, was shot on an island 2,000 miles from the nearest continent. That is not far enough to protect the wild birds from our trash.

But we’re recycling plastic, right? New York City, home to millions of bottled water drinkers, recently started recycling all rigid plastic, and many other regions got there first. Well, that was helpful, but as of this year, it’s helping less.

U.S. companies believe that recycling plastic doesn’t pay, so the stuff we separate out from our garbage was shipped to China where it could be processed more cheaply, but there were drawbacks. Transporting the refuse across the ocean took an ecological toll in fuel consumed and sea life killed en route. The mom and pop workshops that do most of China’s plastic recycling have “no facilities to treat waste water before it flows into local rivers.” But the system did keep some discarded material out of landfills.

Until now. As of this year, plastics numbered 3-7 “are absolutely going to a landfill,” says David Kaplan, CEO of an American post-industrial recycler. China has stopped importing plastic trash under its new Green Fence Policy, for which individual Americans bear part of the blame. 20% of the items we tossed into our plastic recycling bins were not washed or were not recyclable. Chinese processors had to bury or burn that material, polluting their air and growing their landfills. In part to keep those contaminants out, their government erected the Green Fence.

The only way to keep recycling our recyclables, Kaplan says, is to find a way to process them economically in the United States. That should actually be easier to do with the Chinese market closed. American processors won’t face competition from the Asian country’s cheaper labor and lax safety standards. They now could make money while paying living wages and not polluting air and water the way Chinese processors do.

Who knows what American processors will do with contaminated material if and when they do start recycling our discarded plastic? Best not to find out: wash out containers before chucking them in the recycling can.

Even if plastic recycling programs do start to work, though, the fluffy little birds will still die. The problem is a monumental vortex of trash, including masses of plastics, swirling around near their island home. Mom and dad go fishing, pick up some plastic instead, and pass it on to Junior. With a belly full of plastic, Junior can’t digest food. Soon all that is left of him is some feathers, a beak, a spine, and a pile of bottle caps where his stomach used to be. One out of every three albatross chicks dies of plastic.

Almost half of all our plastic doesn’t find its way to a recycling plant or a landfill. Instead it joins the waterborne trash heap that is killing albatrosses and other wildlife: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. If it weren’t in the water it would be the largest landfill in the world. The things people drop on the ground get washed down sewers and through waterways into the ocean, where they are drawn into one of the garbage vortexes (the Great Pacific isn’t the only one).

In the end we are back to reduce, reuse, recycle. To save the albatrosses, prevent air and water pollution, and stop the steady growth of landfills, we need to use less plastic, reuse what we have to obviate the need for new plastic, and recycle it when we’re done so it can be remade into a new item. And one more thing: to arrest the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and similar death traps, we need to stop littering. Plastic goes in the recycling bin. If there isn’t one, it goes in the trash. Otherwise, it goes into a baby bird and ends her life.

Related Story:

Update On The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Yes, It’s Still There)

Photo Credit: Chris Jordan

128 comments

Emily J.
Emily J.5 months ago

Thanks for this article1

David Rozell
David Rozell8 months ago

Thanks for posting this article I found it very even in its description of this issue and the roles that are played in creating the problem. However, I do not agree that simply passing laws will solve the problem. "we" are the biggest part of the problem! We consume way too much and yet demand convenience at the same time. This is a problem!! Plastic is the answer, for now!!

Simply banning Styrofoam containers and other plastics which can not be easily made into useful products will only drive up the cost for us all and wreak more havoc on the environment as these materials are diverted to other countries with little or no environmental regulations.

And when was the last time any of us bought a product based on the fact that it was made with secondary materials? Or demanded that our products be packaged in "secondary/recycled plastic" If we don't contain our hunger for convenience this is what we will continue to get.

I worked in the solid waste field for over 20 years and we were asking the same questions then as we are now. This is not an easy fix, folks!

Jim Ven
Jim Ven8 months ago

thanks for the article.

Doreen Amadatsu
Doreen Amadatsuabout a year ago

First of all these companies that are responsible for creating the plastic mess must take responsibility by reducing the amount of plastic they create-over packaging, useless plastic bags for vegetables ect, s-difficulty for those with dexterity in their hands to open certain products. Bring back paper bags that ARE BIODEGRADABLE. as well as create more biodegradable products. Cut down on those plastic clips and rings used to hold bottles and cans.

joan silaco
joan silacoabout a year ago

FIRST WE SHOULD BE PASSING RECYCLE LAWS ACROSS THE COUNTRY AS SOME STATES DON'T EVEN RECYCLE. SODA AND FRUIT DRINK COMPANIES DO NOT RECYCLE ALL THEIR PLASTIC. EVEN THOUGH THEY USE RECYCABLE









































































THERE ARE SOME STATES THAT DON'T EVEN RECYCLE. THERE ARE SODA AND FRUIT COMPANIES THAT DON'T RECYCLE THEIR OWN PRODUCT, EVEN THOUGH THE PLASTIC ITSELF IS RECYCLABLE! SO I'M EITHER LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO RECYCLE WHEN I'M AWAY OR I BUY GLASS EVEN THOUGH ITS HEAVIER. I AM DETERMINED TO RECYCLE AS MUCH AS I CAN AS ITS LIKE A RELIGION TO ME. I'LL EVEN BRING SOME HOME AT TIMES ALONG WITH THE ALUMINUM. I GOT THE FEW BOTTLE CAPS AND STILL COUNTING, BUT WHAT IS A PERSON TO DO?




Danny Wilson
Danny Wilsonabout a year ago

ty

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Cristina Fisher
Cristina Fisher2 years ago

This is outrageous!!!

Mark Donner
Mark Donner`2 years ago

The worst criminals on the planet are on the boards of just 90 companies, and that includes the oil companies. These criminals are guilty of crimes far worse than even genocide. They are dead set on murdering all life on this planet, which is a crime that can't be equaled in the sordid history of humanity.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson2 years ago

reduce is first because it is most important.. reuse is second because that is plan b, and recycle is last because it should be the last resort