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Only 5% of plastic in the U.S. is recyclable. What should you do with the rest?

Plastic bottles are seen at a recycling center in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
Plastic bottles are seen at a recycling center in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

If you have a recycling bin at home, chances are you have seen the ubiquitous chasing arrows symbol on the bottom of plastic packaging and assumed that indicates the plastic is recyclable.

But only a fraction of plastic is truly recyclable, and the rest will end up in landfills and oceans, among other places.

The misleading arrow symbol leads consumers to overwhelm recycling plants with plastic items they can’t process, according to Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, a non-profit that aims to reduce single-use plastic use and production. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency asked the Federal Trade Commission to modify the symbol for that reason.

“When it comes to plastics, recycling has been an abysmal failure, and only 5% to 6% of plastics actually gets recycled in the United States,” says Enck.

Plastics are nearly impossible to recycle because of the many different types that cannot be recycled together. Thousands of different chemical additives make plastics soft, fire resistant or give them other properties, Enck says.

“Go to your washing machine in your home or your apartment and you might see a bright orange hard plastic detergent bottle. Go to your refrigerator and you might see a squeezable clear ketchup bottle,” Enck says. “Those two types of plastics cannot be recycled together. “

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The only exception is plastics labeled 1 and 2, like clear drinking bottles, some food packaging, milk jugs, shampoo bottles and more.

Enck says that widespread legal reform would be needed to curb the plastic industry’s negative impact on the environment. When plastic is recycled improperly, it ends up in landfills, water sources, and even our bodies, as evidenced by studies showing plastic particles in breast milk, placenta and blood. And the U.S. is the biggest plastic polluter in the world.

“We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution problem,” says Enck.

But with the plastic industry continuing to swell and expand, Enck says that laws tamping down plastic production are unlikely.

“The plastics industry has spent millions of dollars lying to the public and letting people think that plastics are recyclable,” Enck says, “when over 90% of them are not and they know that better than anyone.”

Instead, it falls to consumers to take difficult measures to cut down their plastic consumption.  Some states have put parameters or outright bans on plastic bags or other single-use plastic products. Enck recommends trying to avoid products packaged in plastic while shopping. If possible, Enck says to seek out stores like Plaine Products, Blue Land and DeliverZero that offer product refills in reusable containers.

Even though Enck doesn’t think new legislation is likely coming soon, she’s heard bipartisan support for addressing the problem of plastic pollution and is hopeful the future will hold change.

“I’ve met many climate change deniers,” she says. “I’ve never met a plastic pollution denier because the problem is everywhere and people want change.”


Adeline Sire produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Sire also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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