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Plastic Recycling Is Fake, So What the Hell Am I Supposed to Do?

The vast majority of plastic does not actually get recycled into anything else. Is there anything an individual can do to make a difference?

I’ve been diligently recycling my plastics for years. I’m going to keep doing it. Unfortunately, though, it’s a waste of time: 91 percent of plastics end up as litter or in landfills, and that nine percent that actually does make it to some form of “recycling” is often not actually recycled. Transforming plastics into other plastics is expensive, and largely pointless — plastic degrades with each use, and there are only so many pairs of yoga pants and square footage of countertops made from recycled water bottles that people want to buy. 

The truth gets even harsher. Part of why plastic waste is so obsolete is because it’s made from oil, and if plastic can be reused, there’s less of a market for oil. Simply put, plastic isn’t recyclable because oil companies don’t want it to be. So what the fuck are we supposed to do?

Of course, it’s really not your responsibility to fix the planet. You, as one individual, just can’t do it. But honestly? Throwing plastic in the trash feels like shit. Plastic litter is everywhere, and it’s ugly and gross and toxic. Plastic rain is already falling from the skies in uninhabited national parks. Even if it’s useless, I’d like to lessen my contribution toward the digging of our polymer grave. The only real way to do that? Basically, just stop using so much damn plastic.

Probably easier said than done, but it’s kind of the only choice we have. You don’t have to be totally religious about it, though. One less bottle is one less bottle. Buying aluminum cans instead of plastic when possible, like with soda or seltzer, is a super viable option. Since aluminum has actual value and can easily be transformed into new products, a much higher portion of aluminum gets recycled. 

There’s also the obvious swaps that have already become pretty ingrained into consumer culture, like using metal straws or a reusable water bottle. If you wanna take those practices to the next level, you could keep reusable utensils in your car for fast-food purchases, and some restaurants will even let you use your own containers for takeout. Again, you’re not gonna save the world with these swaps, but you can still feel decent about it. 

As for what to do with the plastic you already have, there aren’t a ton of choices. Bringing it directly to a recycling facility might give it a better shot at getting recycled, or you can make some kind of stupid craft with it. Some people make “bricks” out of plastic bottles filled with even more plastic, which seems pretty sad but maybe it works in constructing a shed or something? 

More than anything, though, just having the mindset of using less plastic to guide you through your purchasing decisions will make a difference in the quantity of plastic you’re bringing in and out of your home. If everyone did it, then, yeah, there would be less plastic waste and litter. That’s unlikely to happen, but we might as well live the way we wish other people would. Until we somehow convince oil companies to stop doing what they do, we’re kind of just stuck lugging around clunky water bottles and metal forks wherever we go.