The fantasy is that we can recycle our way out of the plastic waste crisis, but in reality only 9% of plastic produced has ever been recycled.
Of the 9% that can actually be sorted, processed and sold, one more danger lurks before we can even hope our plastic will start on its way to a new life: it must be clean.
How clean? No visible food. How dry? Shake out liquids after rinsing.
Recycled plastic must compete against virgin plastic in the marketplace, and contaminates like food particles, biofilm, oils and dirt reduce its quality.
Because it costs more to collect, sort, cut, melt and transform used plastic into marketable resin than it does to create new resins from hydrocarbons, most recyclers just can’t afford the labor, water and time it takes to deal with contaminated plastic.
So even the more valuable plastics like water bottles will usually end up diverted to trash if they are dirty.
In areas with robust waste management systems, it will likely head to landfill or incineration. In the many parts of the world lacking in such infrastructure, dirty plastic goes into open dumps, fires and waterways.
A 9% recycle rate is disappointing to people who thought all plastic marked with the little triangle symbols was recyclable. But since the world created 300 million tons of plastic in 2021 alone, 9% is still a lot of plastic.
It is worth making sure your recyclable plastics are clean when you turn them in for a second chance at life. While we can’t avoid all plastic, it only takes a couple moments to make sure the stuff you can’t avoid is clean enough to recycle.