Is Recycling Plastic Even Worth It?

Updated: Dec. 18, 2023

Most of our plastic isn't getting recycled. Here are some easy ways we can help fix that.

As a country, we’re decent about some of our recycling. We successfully process about two-thirds of our aluminum and paper and about one-third of our glass back into new products.

But when it comes to the more than 200 pounds of plastic waste each of us generates per year, we only put about 15 percent of it into recycle bins. And only about five percent actually gets recycled.

Recycling of paper, cardboard, metal and glass is definitely worth it,” says Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “But the plastics waste stream is very complex and is not easy to recycle.”

So when presented with packaging choices, it’s best to veer away from plastic. (Spoiler alert: Aluminum is the best.) But ditching plastic altogether isn’t practical. So here’s how to make better choices with the plastic we do use to help get more of it recycled.

Why Isn’t Household Plastic Recycled?

It’s a complicated system, which basically means that a lot of things can go wrong between your recycle bin and a finished recycled product.

First, there are thousands of types of plastics, all with different chemical additives and colors. “Think about all of the plastics in your home,” Enck says. “You may have a bright-orange hard-plastic detergent bottle and a clear plastic ketchup container that is squeezable.”

And even though many of these plastics are numbered 1 through 7 for recycling, that isn’t necessarily straightforward. Even the easiest plastic to recycle, #1, contains two kinds of plastics — polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and thermoform clamshells — that can’t be recycled together.

Here are some other things that can go wrong, sending plastic to the landfill or the incinerator instead of a recycling plant:

  • Lack of resources: Most recycling centers can only accept #1 and #2 plastics.
  • Lack of standardization: “Recycling rules vary widely from town to town, which creates confusion and discourages people from practicing consistent habits,” says Mitch Ratcliffe, publisher of the sustainable living and recycling information site Earth911.
  • Contamination from non-recyclable plastics in recycling bins: “The most common form of contamination is when residents bag their recyclables in plastic bags,” says Stephanie Miller, author and founder of Zero Waste DC. “Those immediately get tossed because those bags gum up the sorting machines.”
  • Wishcycling: Another form of contamination, wishcycling includes putting non-recyclable items into recycling bins with the false hope they won’t go to the landfill, like umbrellas, yoga mats, styrofoam cups and dog-food bags.
  • Contamination from food left on recyclable containers: This, along with broken glass in mixed-stream recycling bins, doesn’t help.
  • Lack of market: Most countries stopped accepting U.S. recyclables a few years ago. “China closed its doors to U.S. recyclables because we were putting too many non-recyclable items into our bins,” says Enck. But even when they were taking it, our plastic recycling success was still less than 10 percent.
  • Lack of access: Only about 50 percent of Americans have residential recycling programs.
  • The pandemic: Recycling at some grocery stores and other retailers stalled during the pandemic.
  • Economics: Many companies opt for virgin plastic because it’s cheap to create.
  • Antiquated technology: “We are dealing with a system built on a mid-20th century infrastructure that has been disrupted by pandemic, China’s decision not to accept our waste, and more,” says Ratcliff. But that’s changing, with new investments in recycling and increasing demand for recycled materials. “It’s a stay-tuned kind of thing,” he says.

How To Cut Down on Plastic Use at Home

Our plastics consumption has quadrupled over the last three decades and is expected to triple by 2060. Excess plastic pollution is not just a concern for our oceans and landfills. It’s also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and a risk to our personal health.

“So it’s worth thinking about what it is that we can be doing to reduce our contribution to these problems,” says Miller.

  • Choose wisely: Cut down consumption of single-use plastic and choose aluminum and glass packaging when possible. Both materials can be infinitely recycled. Recycling aluminum actually saves 95 percent of the energy used to make a can from scratch.
  • Don’t strive for perfection: “Don’t try to get to a 100 percent reduction in plastic use,” says Miller. “You’ll make yourself crazy and you’ll never get there. Aim for the really low-hanging fruit and you will make an 80 percent difference, and that’s huge.”

To do that, Miller recommends starting with one recurring plastic. Start by doing a recycle bin audit. Spread your week’s bin onto a towel, see what you have a lot of and figure out if there’s a more sustainable packaging alternative. Can you get your favorite drink in cans instead of plastic bottles?

Next, go for it. And share your enthusiasm. “I really believe it is contagious,” Miller says. “As long as you keep it positive.”

Some of the most common ways to enact change are:

  • Switching to reusable shopping and produce bags;
  • Carrying reusable water bottles;
  • Ditching straws;
  • Buying bulk foods;
  • Finding alternatives to berries and other foods that come in plastic clamshells;
  • Frequenting farmer’s markets, where it’s generally easier to find unpackaged produce;
  • Buying biodegradable plastic and learning how to use it;
  • Bringing your own to-go container and reusable cutlery;
  • Using reusable coffee mugs.

“That last one can be awkward, as not all coffee shops are used to accepting customers’ reusable mugs,” says Miller.

This is why Miller started DC Reduces, a grassroots program where businesses from coffee shops to dry cleaners can put a sticker in their window to signal they’re down with the idea. She borrowed the idea from a similar program in Toronto and encourages anyone to contact her with questions about starting a chapter in their town.

Finally, when you do buy plastic, try to restrict it to #1 (commonly water and soda bottles) and #2 (milk jugs, shampoo and detergent bottles). These are the most likely to be recycled.

Also, ask the companies you buy from to adopt plastic-free packaging. And if you don’t have recycling in your community, ask your local waste management office and government to invest in it.

“Action turns into results,” says Mitch. “Consumer pressure has already driven the adoption of post-consumer recycled materials by food and beverage makers, among others. Their need for recycled feedstock will support further investment and, in the long run, a modern recycling system that functions far better than today’s.”