Why is Plastic Needed?
Some jurisdictions have tried banning certain kinds of plastic. But there are several reasons this is a flawed approach.
First, it just creates trash of a different kind. If instead of littering plastic bottles, people litter aluminum cans, that’s not any better. For example, after San Francisco banned single-use Styrofoam takeout containers, litter from other materials increased. That is why each person must have a recycling mentality.
Public policy proposals are often based on faulty premises such as addressing the serious issue of plastic pollution in the oceans that they are supposed to help with. Consider, for example, that a recent study finds that 90% of plastic ocean pollution from rivers comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa. Chinese cargo ships are estimated to be responsible for over 70% of Atlantic trash. A 2015 study of plastic ocean waste found that the entire U.S. is responsible for less than 1% of plastic ocean garbage. China alone is responsible for 28%. And the Great Pacific Garbage Patch we’ve all heard about? According to National Geographic, “the patch is mostly abandoned fishing gear,” not bottles. We should recycle to keep America clean, but the facts about what is achievable also matter.
America has an aging water infrastructure system that puts millions of Americans at risk. Roughly 10 million American homes use lead pipes in their tap water supply. Purified water is needed in those areas that have bad tap systems, as highlighted during the 2014 Flint water crisis and the 2019 Newark water crisis.
The shelf life of plastic water bottles makes them a critical tool in survival kits, especially during natural disasters. Water systems are often compromised during hurricanes, leaving thousands, and sometimes millions, of people without the most critical survival tool–clean drinking water. However, plastic bottles solve this as they are easily transportable, remain fresh, and can be stored away for decades. Other materials are heavier and cost more—and use more fossil fuel energy—to transport and manufacture.
What About Other Materials?
Why can’t we just swap out plastic bottles for cans or boxes? There are specific reasons why aluminum, glass, or juice boxes are not the solution.
- Aluminum cans are made from bauxite ore. Mining for this mineral leaves a huge carbon footprint and has heavy impacts on water and ecosystems. Aluminum cans are over 4 times the material weight of water bottles for the same amount of liquid, meaning they take more to produce and more energy to transport. However, aluminum cans are recyclable–so be sure to recycle the ones already in existence.
- Glass bottles are very heavy compared to plastic and aluminum and require more cardboard when packaging–leaving a very large carbon footprint during transportation. While highly recyclable, glass can be a safety hazard for both workers at recycling facilities and for consumers because it shatters.
- Water boxes, essentially juice boxes for water, are a newer product on the market. However, because the product is a combination of different materials melded together (plastic, cardboard, and small amounts of aluminum), many Americans don’t have access to a recycling plant than can handle this. Additionally, the extra packaging material increases both the input costs of manufacturing and the energy required to transport the materials. They often have more plastic in them than a water bottle.
This chart reveals that plastic bottles—perhaps surprisingly—have the least environmental impact to produce.
What Plastic Can I Recycle?
Almost all plastic is recyclable. Below are common household products that you may not be recycling—or may not even know you can recycle.
If you don’t see a product here, then look on the bottom of the product for a recycling symbol. If you see it, it is recyclable. Click here to learn more about what this symbol means.
Soda and water bottles are typically made of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate or PET. This plastic is recyclable into new bottles and many other manufactured products including carpeting. There are billions that are already being recycled but there are billions more that need you to put them in the proper bin.
Typically a thicker form of plastic called High-Density Polyethylene. This plastic is also used in laundry detergent containers, toys, and plastic bags.
Typically a thicker form of plastic called High-Density Polyethylene. Recycle with other plastics.
Sandwich & Grocery Bags
These products are often made from Low-Density Polyethylene. Other products include condiment bottles and cling wrap. This kind of plastic has been difficult to recycle in the past, but more and more companies are able to handle it. Many grocery stores have a way to return bags after you’ve used them.
Tupperware, margarine tubs, yogurt containers are made of material called polypropylene. Also commonly made with PP plastic are diapers, bottle tops, butter/margarine/yogurt containers, straws, and packing tape. While it is widely available to be recycled, only 3% of this kind of plastic is recycled in the US.
Disposable cups and boxes are often made from a form of polystyrene, also called styrofoam. It is also used as insulation and packing peanuts. Because polystyrene does not biodegrade quickly, it’s important that you recycle it so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill.
You can be the pollution solution. Please recycle.
The U.S. recycling rate is around 34.5%. If we’re able to get the rate to 75%, the effect will be like removing 50 million passenger cars from U.S. roads.
One ton of recycled plastic saves:
- 5,774 kWh of electricity. That can be the equivalent of watching your TV for two years straight.
- 685 gallons of oil, which is enough to fuel the average American’s car for about half a year
- 98 million BTUs of energy – enough to provide electricity to the average US household for nearly 3 years
- 30 cubic yards of landfill space.
Instead of banning plastic bottles in our country and hurting our consumers, we should look to invest in better recycling programs in developing nations.
It’s easier than ever to recycle. It is your duty to do it.
About the Campaign
The Campaign for Recycling Awareness was founded in 2020. Despite widespread general awareness about recycling, many Americans aren’t doing it. The EPA finds the overall recycling rate is only about 35 percent. Surveys have found many Americans are unaware that goods they are throwing away are 100% recyclable into a variety of new products from carpets to clothing. With more understanding, together we can do much better for the environmental we all share.