In 2011, the U.S. generated 32 million tons of plastic waste, accounting for near 13 percent of the nation’s total garbage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This waste included nearly 14 million tons of plastic packaging and containers, roughly 11 million tons of durable goods such as household appliances, and almost seven million tons of non durable goods, such as cups, plates, and utensils.
Despite the enormous amount of plastic waste generated in 2011, only eight percent was recovered for recycling. Even more disturbing, easily recyclable materials such as plastic bags, wraps, and sacks were recycled only 11 percent of the time, according to the EPA.
These types of numbers only further help to underscore the importance of using less plastic, and recycling more of the materials we do use. In addition to reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills, recycling also offers many other environmental benefits.
Reduced Oil Consumption
Most manufacturers make plastics from natural gas or crude oil derivative, so the more plastic consumed the greater the drain on nonrenewable resources becomes. The amount of oil required to produce just one plastic bottle could fill that same bottle one quarter of the way. On average, one ton of recycled plastic can save over 16 barrels of oil, according to the Stanford University Recycling Center. Recycling plastic helps to reduce oil and natural gas consumption, which then extends the availability remaining fossil fuels in the future.
In plastic manufacturing, companies need to chemically alter crude oil derivatives before production can begin. Radical polymerization, a commonly used technique in plastic production, requires compressing reactants to 1,000 times current atmospheric pressure and heating them to 100 degrees Celsius or above. This type of technique requires a considerable amount of energy be expended for production.
While recycling plastic still requires energy – plastic needs to be shredded, melted, and remolded as part of the recycling process – it requires far less energy than the creation of new materials. In fact, recycling one ton of plastic saves the equivalent of over 5,500 kilowatt-hours of energy.
One of the reasons plastics remain popular is their durability; their inertness and toughness make them so useful. However, plastics durability also make them a liability when placed into landfill where they breakdown at an incredibly slow rate. Just one plastic bottle can take upwards of 100 years to fully breakdown, while a plastic beverage holder could take four times as long, according to the University of Hawaii’s Center for Microbial Oceanography.
You can only recycle two types of plastic – high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate – at most recycling centers. You can distinguish the two types by looking at the codes typically printed on the plastic or its packaging. Each code features a number surrounded by the symbol for recycling. Code number one is polyethylene terephthalate and HDPT is code number two. This type of plastic can be made into new bottles, plastic lumber, car parts, fibers in clothes, and many other products when recycled. To find a plastic scrap recycling center near you, check online or contact your local EPA office.
John Nickelbottom is a freelance health writer.