According to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Americans discard 33.6 million tons of plastics every year. Worryingly, only 6.5% of this waste is recycled while a further 7.7% undergoes combustion in waste-to-energy facilities. The rest ends up in landfills or in oceans where up to 100 million tons float putting marine life at great risk. Dumping plastics in landfills is not a perfect solution because they can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. In addition, decomposing plastics can leak pollutants into soil and underground water sources.
An In-depth Look at the US Plastic Waste Problem
For most people, the term plastic garbage conjures up images of plastic water bottles, paper bags, and cups. However, this is a simplistic view that does not capture the magnitude of the plastics problem in the US. To start with, plastics are found in a wide range of products, not just water bottles, cups, or bags. They are widely used in vehicle parts, PVC products, magazines, pens, toys, medical devices, and beauty product packaging. Another problem is there are different types of plastics with varying chemical compositions.
Moreover, separating plastics from non-plastics is a labor-intensive process. It is also worth noting that a report published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University states that only two types of plastics are widely recycled in the US. This is in spite of the Society of Plastic Industries establishing codes for seven types of recyclable plastics. All these aspects make recycling discarded plastics a difficult task.
As a result, most of the plastics discarded by Americans end up in landfills or litter urban areas and the countryside. Light breaks plastics lying in the open into increasingly smaller particles that leach into surrounding soil and water. Over time, these particles pass up the food chain into human bodies via seafood.
Plastic Waste Awareness in the US
Although many campaigners and environmental advocacy groups regularly warn consumers about the plastic waste pandemic, very few seem to have grasped this message. A study carried out by MSLK, a New York based graphic design firm, found that Americans discard 50 billion plastic water bottles every year. Out of these, only 20% are recycled.
Americans’ love affair with bottled water is financially unhealthy given bottled water is 1,000 times costlier than tap water. Even more saddening is the fact that the bottled water industry uses 17 million barrels of oil per year, which translates to more environmental pollution.
A study carried out by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in 2012 found that the level of plastic waste recycling across the US should be significantly higher. To be precise, 91% of Americans could recycle plastics bags locally while up to 75% of US population could recycle various types of plastics locally.
Sadly, this is not the case in many parts of the US. A good example is New York City, which sends its waste to landfills in states such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio, according to grownyc.org. The same ACC study found that Americans rarely use plastic recycling programs even in cases where such programs are easily accessible.
Researchers involved in this study found that plastics recycling collection points conveniently located in or near grocery stores, major retail centers or local shopping centers were underutilized. This means awareness about the impact of plastics on the environment and human health is very low.
Plastic Waste and Recycling Trends
Plastic waste recycling has not changed much in the last few years and experts expect this trend to continue in the near future. Nevertheless, the plastics recycling cloud has a silver lining in the form of new recycling plant technology, according to the Earth Institute at the Columbia University. This includes the use of near-infrared spectroscopy technology to speed up the recycling process by identifying chemical composition of various plastics.
The amount of plastics discarded by the average American will continue to rise in the coming years. There are several reasons why this is so. Firstly, Americans only use 50 to 80% of products that come in plastic packaging once translating to increasingly larger piles of discarded plastics. Secondly, manufacturers are ramping up output of plastics every year.
At the same time, they are conjuring up new forms of plastics that can appeal to consumers as healthier and less harmful. For instance, a report published by MarketWatch paints a picture of a plastics industry gravitating towards anti-microbial plastics. In simple words, anti-microbial plastics are infused with antimicrobial compounds to inhibit growth of bacteria or fungi.
An article published by ecowatch.com states that American manufacturers have churned out more plastics in the last 10 years alone than over the last 100 years. Without legislation to curb rampant production of plastics, this trend will hold in the near future.
Another factor likely to hamper recycling efforts is the low number of recycling plants and programs relative to magnitude of discarded plastics problem. The low percentage of households (less than 35%) and businesses (less than 10%) that participate in recycling programs is also a major challenge.
How to Curb the Plastic Waste Menace
Since the current state of affairs is not sustainable over the long term, it is necessary to come up with ways of reducing and managing plastic waste. An effective solution is for consumers to reduce amount of plastic they discard every day. This is according to the US Environmental Pollution Agency (EPA).
One way of achieving this goal is by recycling plastics whenever possible. For instance, you could use large shopping bags to pack household trash. The EPA also recommends sorting plastics before taking them to nearest collection center. Consumers could also shop at green stores that do not pack groceries or other items in plastic bags.
Although plastics offer unparalleled benefits to diverse businesses, they translate into a waste headache of gargantuan proportions. This is in addition to human health problems as 93% of Americans six years and older would test positive for BPA, a harmful plastic chemical, according to ecowatch.com. The plastic waste problem is further compounded by low awareness among consumers on its environmental impact.
This will make you think…