The Big Question: How Much Recycling Actually Gets Recycled?

The Reason I’m Writing This Article

Plastic bottle tops being recycled
Recycling Bottle Tops

How much recycling actually gets recycled? And Why is this an important question to ask? Well, the other day I wrote an article on how people can enjoy a plastic free Christmas. One reader decided to leave a comment (for which I’m very grateful). The comment was something along the lines of ‘Thank you for the tips and I get where you are coming from… but I recycle so it’s fine…’

Now, during my research for previous articles I have come across many statistics about how much recycling actually gets recycled, and they may shock you. In general, recycling numbers are good but when we look into plastic recycling, the numbers drop significantly. I will, of course, go into more detail later.

I am writing this article to show that although you may think ‘I’m doing my part’ by recycling your plastic waste, maybe it isn’t ending up where you think it is.

How Many People Actually Recycle?

Over-flowing rubbish bin
Over-flowing With Trash

So, let’s start with people. How many people are ‘doing their part’? Well, the number of people recycling is actually quite good. In both the UK and US, around 75% of people recycle. These numbers obviously vary depending on where people live and the systems that have been put into place in the area.

This statistic shows, in my opinion, that the people are playing their part, especially as the percentage of people recycling are growing each year. So I think we can move on to the next issue.

What Percentage Of Plastic Is Recycled?

Crushed Plastic Bottles
Crushed Plastic Bottles

In general, the number of materials being recycled and composted is pretty good. When it comes to food, paper, glass and metals we seem to have good systems in place and as long as people recycle them properly, the problems are minimal. But as this a blog about plastic pollution, there are no prizes for guessing where the major problems are being caused.

I have decided to use the US for my example as the EPA has a very detailed waste management fact sheet which I can work off. So here are the most important numbers regarding plastic waste from the most recent review available done in 2015:

  • Weight generated = 34.5 million tonnes

  • Weight recycled = 3.14 million tonnes (9.1%)
  • Weight combusted with energy recovery = 5.35 million tonnes (15.5%)
  • Weight landfilled = 26.01 million tonnes (75.4%)

*Percentages are of amount generated

So what can we take from these numbers?

Despite the fact that 75% of people recycle, 75% of plastic generated ends up in landfills and only 9% is actually recycled. So now you can begin to see where the ‘it’s OK, I recycle’ point of view starts to fall apart.

Where Does Your Recycling End Up?

open bin with plastic bottles lay around it
Looks Like They Missed

A 2017 study in the Science Advances journal, which looked at all the plastic ever made and where it ended up, said: ‘Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority—79 percent—is accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment as litter.

Much of the plastic in the natural environment is in the ocean where it does damage in many ways. Marine life can get tangled up in nets and other plastic waste and drown. Many eat plastic, mistaking it for food, and consume so much it can kill them. If that isn’t bad enough (it definitely is), many smaller fish are now eating micro plastics they mistake for food and it can then work its way up the food chain, where we can then consume it.

It is estimated that 8 million metric tonnes ends up in the ocean every year and that if that trend continues, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050!

Why Are The Numbers So Bad?

There are a number of reasons the amount of plastic being recycled are so bad, some of which are:

  1. Not all plastic can be recycled, for example, the black plastic trays that are used in microwavable ready meals is low quality plastic and cannot be recycled. Plastic straws and ear buds can also not be recycled.

  2. Some plastic that is recyclable is contaminated to the point that can’t be recycled.

  3. In some areas plastic that is recyclable cannot be recycled because they don’t have the correct machinery to either sort or recycle certain types of plastic.

  4. The infrastructure in place simply cannot keep up with amount of plastic we are producing and throwing away, year-on-year.

Until we can find ways to improve these problems, we will continue to only recycle a small percentage of what is produced.

How Can We Improve Our Recycling Systems?

wheelie bins for recycling
Wheelie Bins

There are different ways that we can improve our recycling systems, which include; investing in new technology and infrastructure, to be able to sort and recycle more types of plastic and giving more information on which plastics can be recycled and how to recycle plastics properly.

Governments are also trying to ban certain plastic products, especially ones that cannot be recycled, such as plastic straws. This should an instant impact on the percentage of plastic being recycled, although it needs to done for a wider range of products, as long as we can find viable alternatives.

The Best Course Of Action

recycling box
Is Recycling the Best Way?

I hope this article has shed some light on the problems we are having with recycling our plastic waste and the impact it is having on our environment. While it is great that many people are recycling, it isn’t the solution to the problem that many people think it is.

Until we have the technology and infrastructure in place to deal with a much larger percentage of our plastic waste we produce, I believe it is a much better option to find ways to reduce your plastic usage. A good starting point is my article on 15 easy ways to stop using plastic.

By educating yourself and others around you, we can all reduce our reliance on plastic and truly ‘do our part’.

As always, feel free to leave a comment, ask a question and share this article.

Thank you for reading!

Simon

8 thoughts on “The Big Question: How Much Recycling Actually Gets Recycled?”

  1. Hi Simon! Thank you very much for this very interesting article. It has really shed some light concerning what happens with the plastic I recycle. I must honestly say that I didn’t know it ended up in landfills. Those stats are really awful.

    Yeah I agree with you. To truly do our part we should find ways to stop using plastic. I’ll check out your recommendations on that too.

    • Hi Henry,

      It is understandable that many people don’t know where their ‘recycling’ goes. If you asked me 12 months ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue 🙂

      Simon

  2. Hi Simon,

    I absolutely see the value of your post.

    It’s really hard to imagine that so little of our trash gets recycled.

    I live in Asia and I recently spent a month in Cambodia, which is a wonderful country, but sadly they jave trash everywhere on a scale I have never seen before. It’s like someone flew to 50,000ft and emptied the trash can over the country.

    After that I spent 7 months in Thailand and Thailand is much better, except I have never seen a country that uses plastic bags as much.

    Virtually every product in the Big C supermarket is given its own plastic bag at checkout.

    We had to repack the food every time.

    It would appear as you state that the people are doing reasonably well.

    It would seem one of the biggest challenges is commerce and industry.

    If we were not given products in plastic, it would be much better.

    Can governments be encouraged to give penalties to companies who keep producing plastic for packaging?

    That would certainly improve things if we can cut the supply of plastic.

    Tim

    • Hi Tim,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I have also spent some time in south east Asia and agree with you completely. The scale of the problem in some developing countries, like Cambodia, is huge but we need to lead by example and show these countries that there is another way.

      Although I haven’t heard of governments penalizing companies for their use of plastic packaging, many countries are starting to ban or put tariffs on single-use plastics such as bags and straws. Which has reduced usage significantly in the UK and it sounds like Thailand should do the same 🙂

      Simon

  3. Recycling…such a difficult matter for so many reasons. Education is one thing but if there are no proper recycling systems where you live knowledge cannot help a lot. For example in my country we are very far behind in recycling both in education but also in proper systems that would gather all the plastics and process them accordingly. Things have improved a bit the last few years but things are very slow to change and we need more drastic laws to help with it.

    • Hi Stratos,

      That is very true. Education can only take you so far, when the systems around you have such limitations.

      This is the very reason I wrote this article, as even the ‘good’ systems only recycle a small percentage of what we use. Many countries, including the UK, just send there waste elsewhere and categorize it as ‘properly disposed of’. When in the reality, the country it is being sent to will leave it in a landfill or worse… dump it in rivers/oceans.

      That is why I encourage using less plastic as an individual. Use less plastic = less plastic produced = less plastic waste.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Simon

  4. One of my pet peeves is the amount of plastic used in packaging products.Especially the “clam shell” and blister pack form of plastic packaging. They are designed for the convenience of the shippers and retailers. Not the consumer who must use a tool (scissors) to open them. Some of the packaging material is almost impervious to scissors! 

    Given the sheer volume of plastic waste, this seems like it would be a good resource of material to be used into manufacturing other products. Cheap and abundant! Either the marketplace will have to develop new products or uses for plastic waste or the government will have to step in and regulate if we, as a society, want to solve our waste problem.

    • Hi Glen,

      That is very true. I have been ‘defeated’ by this plastic packaging many times and it really is a huge source of frustration, even before I started to learn about the waste side of plastic packaging!

      Yes, it would be great if we could find a way to make plastic waste resource as opposed to an environmental nuisance. I believe there are some technologies being researched right now and I will keep you updated with their developments.

      Thanks

      Simon

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