How far back does plastics recycling go? The first recycling center to accept household plastics goes back to the early 1970s. Pennsylvania started plastics recycling, and there have been advancements over the years. Curbside pick-up started in the 1980s. Rhode Island made plastics recycling mandatory in 1986. By 1990, Coca-Cola was using some recycled plastic to make bottles.
Today, plastics are used to make new bottles, cups, electronics’ cases, and clothing. It’s used for grocery bags. It’s even used to make recycled plastic wood for decking. The more plastic you’re able to recycle the better it is for the environment.
The American Chemistry Council estimates that 35.4 million tons of plastics were generated in 2017. Of that, only 8.4% was recycled while 26.8 million tons ended up in landfills. It’s a lot of plastic going into the trash, and once there, it can take centuries to break down. That’s right. Centuries!
Back when plastics recycling started, U.S. households were generating 6.83 million tons of plastics and 6.67 million tons (about 97.6%) ended up in the landfills. In 2017, about 75.8% percent went into a landfill. There have been improvements in almost 40 years, but some people still don’t understand the importance of recycling plastics. There’s still a lot that needs to be done. It starts with you.
Plastics Do Not Degrade Quickly
You might not be able to recycle certain plastics because your district doesn’t take more than #1 and #2. You may simply find it hard to clean them out to the point your district requires. For whatever reason, you’re throwing some plastics away. You know it takes longer for plastics to decompose than something like a paper towel or slice of bread. Do you know how long different items do take?
That plastic bag you got in the grocery store or plastic storage bags should break down pretty quickly. While it’s thin and looks like it would decompose quickly, it takes 20 years. The sandwich bag you tossed out in your 30s is still in a landfill when you turn 50. Coffee cups are only slightly better with a lifespan of 30 years.
Those are the fastest items to break down. A plastic straw takes 200 years. The plastic rings on your six-pack of soda or beer take 400 years. Plastic cups and water bottles take 450 years. Plastic diapers, toothbrushes, and the outer shell of a coffee pod take 500 years. Heavy-duty tarps may take 1,000 years. How can people know this when plastics haven’t been around for that long? They can take plastics and see how much they have decomposed from year to year and come up with estimates.
Bacteria help most things break down. Plastics aren’t affected by bacteria. UV rays do help break down plastic. That’s why researchers found that plastics break down faster in the ocean. However, we can’t just throw plastics into the ocean. The smaller pieces of plastic get into fishes’ gills and suffocate them. They end up in the stomachs of larger aquatic creatures like whales. You’ve seen photos of turtles struggling to breathe because plastic straws are stuck in their nostrils. You’ve probably seen the photos of beached whales with a stomach full of plastics.
Many plastics will still be breaking down in landfills hundreds of years after you’ve passed away. It’s a frightening thought. The best way is to carefully recycle, demand that your favorite companies use as much recycled plastic as possible, urge companies to come up with better options, and use your wallet to make a change. If people stop buying products packaged in things like Styrofoam, which never breaks down, or harder to recycle plastics, companies will be forced to find new options.
Tips and Programs for Recycling Plastic
Talk to your local waste district. While you cannot recycle many plastics in your curbside bin, you might be able to bring them to the local recycling center. Save them up in boxes for a month and make one trip with all of your plastics that need to be recycled at that point.
Pool liners, pool toys, and wading pools are made from PVC, which is harder to recycle. Check with organizations like Wyatt & Jack. They take donations of pool toys, bouncy castles, and other PVC plastics to turn them into reusable bags of all sizes. While the company is in the U.K., there are ways U.S. residents can donate their items.
Reuse as much of your unneeded PVC plastic liners or older vinyl or poly tarps for other purposes in and around your home. Turn an old vinyl tarp into cushions for your patio furniture. You’ll still have scraps, but it’s reducing the amount going into a landfill. Instead of purchasing landscaping fabric to stop weeds from growing in your new perennial flower garden, use this plastic and cover it with mulch. Make sure you’re leaving space to water the flowers. You could also use an old pool liner to line a smaller pond.
If your curbside recycling hauler doesn’t take plastic bags, see if there are drop-off sites nearby. You can find these bins by searching your address on PlasticFilmRecycling.org. You can drop off all plastic bags and plastic film in these bins. It includes plastics like bubble wrap, plastic mailers, deflated air pillows, plastic grocery bags, and dry cleaning bags.
Upcycle or reuse as much plastic as you can. If you have small pet food containers that are hard to recycle, turn them into something else. You could use the plastic containers to start flower seeds each year. Fill them with potting soil, start your seeds, and wait until the seedling is large enough to transplant. When it is, carefully tip it over to dislodge it and put it in the flower bed. Save the cups for next year’s seedlings.
The large plastic jar that had pretzels in it could be painted with chalkboard paint and turned into an airtight dog treat jar. You could also wash it out, drill holes in the bottom, and paint it in vibrant colors. Fill it with potting soil and use it as a patio planter.
What Else Can You Do?
Stop buying water bottles. Purchase reusable stainless steel or recycled plastic water bottles and fill that. If you don’t like the taste of your tap water or water at your office, Brita and other companies make water bottles with filters that remove any unpleasant odors or tastes.
Use paper straws or a reusable stainless steel straw. Some states have already banned plastic straws from restaurants and convenience stores. Purchase a reusable straw and keep a spare in your car. If you stop to get an iced coffee somewhere, you have a straw in your car and don’t need to use a paper one.
When you buy items for your home, look for those made with recycled plastic. If you need to replace your deck, consider building the new deck with composite lumber that’s made from recycled plastics. It won’t rot or attract insects like carpenter ants.
Try to cook as much using environmentally-friendly packaging. Instead of purchasing your spices in plastic jars, purchase them in bulk and bring your own reusable containers. Buy meat from the butcher instead of getting it on Styrofoam trays that are covered in more plastic wrap.
Recycle Nation has all of the information you need to find how to recycle your plastics. You’ll also find articles helping you come up with other ways to reuse or upcycle items that are harder to recycle. Visit us to learn more.