The Big Question: How Much Recycling Actually Gets Recycled?

The Reason I’m Writing This Article

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?

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?

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.

(A nice alternative to plastic shrink wrap)

Where Does Your Recycling End Up?

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 tones 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?

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

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!