Think about the plastics in your home. You likely have several different kinds of the seven most common plastics in your cupboards and closets. From plastic juice bottles to detergent containers, your home has a lot of plastic in some stage of use. Once it’s empty, what happens? It’s just as likely that your waste and recycling hauler won’t accept many of these plastics when the bottles or packages are empty. Having a recycling symbol on the items doesn’t guarantee that you can recycle them. Many districts stick to #1 and #2 and avoid the others.
The EPA reports that just over 80 million tons of food packaging and containers were manufactured in 2017. It seems like a lot of recycled plastic, but the reality is that that recycling rate is only around half of what ends up in the trash. About 32 million tons end up in landfills and around 8 million tons are used to create energy.
After China imposed restrictions on recyclables, cities and towns were forced to stop accepting certain kinds of recycles or stop curbside recycling services in an effort to trim budgets. One study found that by 2020, only half of the nation has access to a curbside recycling program. If there’s no curbside recycling program, people are more likely to toss items into the trash.
To address this, new or upgraded recycling facilities are being established, but planning and construction take time. The world’s largest rPET recycling facility in Pennsylvania is expanding to eventually be able to process an additional 2.5 billion bottles each year. South Carolina’s Novolex is upgrading its capacity to process an additional 500,000 pounds in plastic bags and plastic films every year. Revolution based in Arkansas is also expanding with the goal of being able to process another 40 million pounds each year. It’s a start but is it enough?
The amount of time it takes plastics to decompose is a problem. A plastic bag can take 20 years. Plastic straws and plastic rings from six-packs of soda or beer take 200 to 400 years. Plastic water bottles, coffee pods, plastic cups, and disposable diapers take longer at 450 to 500 years. The plastic items you dispose of will still be around long after you, your children, your grandchildren, etc. have passed on.
As a result, scientists constantly try to find new ways to recycle and reuse plastics. One of the most recent breakthroughs has been bacteria that breaks down plastic items faster than normal.
How Does Bacteria Break Down Plastic?
Scientists came across bacteria that can break down the compounds in polyurethane that harm the environment and slow decomposition rates. Pseudomonas putida thrive on polyurethane diol and convert the compound to energy. Polyurethane diol is applied to plastics to prevent the item from breaking down. As a result, items treated with it will take centuries to break down even if exposed to the elements. The bacteria devour this coating to help plastics degrade at a faster rate.
That’s good news, but there’s also a downside. The bacteria can digest polyurethane diol, but it only can in small quantities. It cannot digest larger portions, so its benefit may be minimal. It’s still a step forward. It’s also led to other advancements and discoveries.
There’s a newer discovery that is far more promising. Back in 2016, Japanese scientists found an enzyme that breaks down plastics faster than ever before. The super-enzyme breaks down plastics as much as six times faster at room temperature. It’s expected that within two years, this enzyme could be put to use in landfills and other settings to break down plastics.
More recently, French scientists found an enzyme in composting leaves that can break down almost all of a plastic bottle within 10 hours. The one downfall to this enzyme is that temperatures must be at or above 158 degrees F.
Tests are ongoing to see if combinations of these enzymes and bacteria can break down plastics even faster. With luck, in just a few years, bacteria and enzymes will solve the problem of plastics being in landfills for centuries.
Why Don’t People Recycle?
Why aren’t all plastics making it to recycling centers? Some of it is that people simply aren’t in the habit. Another issue is that different districts take different items. For example, residents in Chittenden county in Vermont can recycle most plastic food containers and cleaner bottles, but they must make sure they’re not placing durable plastics, styrofoam, or black plastics in their recycling bins.
Cross the border into Franklin County and durable plastics, biodegradable plastics, and styrofoam are not accepted. Everything else is as long as it is at least two inches or larger. Unlike Chittenden County, Franklin County does not exclude black plastic. As a result, the guidelines can become confusing when people live in one county but often have trash and recycling haulers from a different county.
The pandemic has also changed things. Recycling facilities in many areas had to shut down for weeks and months. For their employees’ safety, some had to shut down while facilities were sterilized and protective gear was ordered. With recycling facilities shuttered temporarily, some people opted to throw them away rather than store them until centers reopened. A Reuters study found that recycling firms in the U.S. had lost 60% of their business. The country has reached a point where new plastic is cheaper to make than it costs to recycle and reuse plastic.
When people recycle improperly, it requires more work at recycling and waste facilities. Staff members must stop a line to remove items that cannot be recycled and put them into trucks that go to landfills. That drives up costs as there are now additional trucks driving miles to a different facility.
It’s also an issue when people are throwing away items that could be recycled. Plastics must be washed or rinsed clean before they’re recyclable. Containers with oily foods and sauces like peanut butter are harder to wash out. People may give up and throw it away or recycle without cleaning it, which poses problems for the solid waste district employees.
What Can You Do to Help?
Take steps to help keep plastics out of the landfill. One of the best ways is by focusing your purchases on the plastics that are most easily recycled. Aim for #1 and #2 when purchasing items like milk, juice, cleaners, and sauces. Mixed plastics are hardest to recycle so avoid buying #7.
Reuse containers as much as you can. Wash out and dry plastic spice containers. Buy herbs and spices in bulk and fill the spice containers you’ve washed. Make homemade salad dressings in the salad dressing bottles that you’ve washed out. Purchase soap refills and reuse dish soap and hand soap dispensers.
Recycling and reusing keep plastics from entering the landfill where they’ll spend centuries breaking down. The final step in sustainability is to check that the durable plastics you purchase come from recycled materials. You can’t recycle a laundry basket so buy one that’s already made from recycled plastics. Those simple steps can help protect our land and waterways. Find out where to recycle all of your plastic items by visiting Recycle Nation.