Most of the plastic ever created still exists
Think about this: We only started producing plastic in the 1950’s. We’ve since made so much, so fast—outpacing any material mankind has ever made—there are 8.3 billion metric tons of it. Of this, only 9 percent has been recycled and 12 percent incinerated; that leaves 79 percent. And we’re still churning it out even faster.
While plastic has very valuable medical and other societal uses, we’ve created a dangerous cycle of convenience and mass consumption. Roughly half of plastic is destined for single use, packaging being the worst of this, and immediately gets tossed. Yikes!
Guess where it’s all it?
Right now, one dump truck of plastic goes into our oceans every minute. Our waters hold the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe. At this rate, by 2050 our landfills will hold plastic 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.
The amount isn’t the only problem. Plastic, especially packed in landfills, can take up to a thousand years to degrade. Even then, most plastics don’t biodegrade; they simply break down into smaller ‘microplastics’ that are now entering our food and water. All this is really hard to clean up.
We’re burying ourselves in plastic. We’re actually ingesting it in our table salt, our water, our food. We’ll be paying more fees and tax dollars to deal with this in the future.
We have got to slow this down.
So why can’t we just recycle it? (Why we choose glass and aluminum)
We were surprised to first learn that, even IF recycled, the same singular piece of plastic can only be recycled a few times. Plastic breaks down in quality and has to be mixed with more new plastic. This is not true for glass and metals, which can be recycled over and over without losing quality.
Also, we’re in a time of crisis for recycling in America where many cities are forced to limit or stop programs (read why). Recyclers can still profit from items like carboard and cans, but have said they can’t depend on selling plastic and paper at prices that cover their processing costs.
This all contributes to why just 9 percent of plastic gets recycled in the U.S. today, up to only 30 percent in Europe. Compare that to 75 percent for aluminum and 80 percent for glass containers.
So, while yes, in some cases, new glass and metals can have a higher lifecycle footprint in that they take more to energy to mine, produce and/or transport, we believe our priority should be gaining control of plastic waste by choosing these alternatives.
Why we need to buy made-from-recycled gear
We created all this plastic, so recycling is still important to reduce waste, curb pollution and recover valuable materials. The good news is recycling, from plastic to glass, paper, tin and aluminum, can save 30 to 95 percent of the energy needed to make items from new materials. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions and conserves significant water.
But as it stands, our towns, cities and recyclers can’t afford to keep up. And big business typically isn’t willing to pay when there’s a slight increase in cost for recycled materials. Therefore it’s also our stance that we need to demand more made-from-recycled products. Even if that means us paying the slight premium until society catches up.
Side note: Beware the “biodegradable” and “bioplastic” labels
Thinking of doing better by buying “biodegradable” straws and silverware? Think again. Most of these are only truly biodegradable in professional, high-temperature incineration facilities, which many cities wouldn’t even have.
Looking at a “bioplastic” using renewable resources like sugarcane or cornstarch? These ingredients simply become another polymer used to make a plastic, and that means these items do not automatically degrade in the environment, and especially not in the ocean.
It’s important to ask the questions.
Slowly, but surely…
Technology is improving. Thanks in part to consumer demand, product manufacturers are working on making packaging easier to recycle. Increasingly, recyclers can deal with “less desirable” plastics like grocery bags or items made of mixed or unknown resins, as found in many toys and household items. There are machines, albeit still in limited usage, that can now separate the plastic lining from paper Starbucks cups for recycling.
Major travel companies are making moves, from Hyatt and United Airlines banning plastic straws to The Travel Corporation removing plastic water bottles across their guided vacation and river cruise brands. From Evian’s 2025 commitment that all water bottles be 100% recycled to Whole Foods being a first to eliminate a plastic bag option, big entities are making big commitments to drive change.
Innovators like REPREVE fabric, being adopted by major brands (and used in a lot of our products!), are making it their business model to be made from recycled. REPREVE has recycled more than 17 billion water bottles for its fabric to date. Compared to making what’s called virgin fiber, making REPREVE offsets using new petroleum, emitting fewer greenhouse gases and conserving water and energy in the process.
It’s important we demand more change now
Sadly, it’s still often cheaper and easier for big corporations and consumers alike to use new plastic. But all the toothpaste tubes and shopping bags and water bottles that didn’t exist 60 years ago have to go somewhere—and creating this much waste has a price we will have to pay down the road.
Here are 10 ways you can take action, starting today:
- Make conscious choices to reduce or eliminate virgin (new) plastic in products you buy.
- Carry and insist on using your own reusable gear at your coffee shop, take-out, grocery, etc.
- Choose goods with less or no plastic packaging. Ask retailers to skip any packaging, where possible.
- For what plastic you do buy, re-use it and re-purpose it as long as possible.
- Ensure when you do use plastic, it’s a recyclable plastic. Research your city’s recycling capabilities so you truly know how to recycle it when you’re done.
- Know the truth about bioplastic and biodegradable labels. Ask those manufacturers, are these curbside recyclable or backyard compostable? How do I dispose of this responsibly?
- Buy made-from-recycled goods and materials like REPREVE fabrics, even if at a premium, to create more consumer demand and corporate incentive for recycling and help re-use all the plastic we’ve created.
- Shop the retailers (like us!), brands, travel companies and manufacturers alike working hard to provide more responsible choices.
- Support governmental policy, like bans on single-use items, that will help make societal change.
- Raise awareness. Teach others what you’ve learned and why this is so important.
The consumer holds vast power, and it’s up to us to make a difference. Let’s start now.