Plastic is incredibly useful in modern life. But the production and disposal of plastic generates greenhouse gases and hazardous waste. Plastic and the chemicals it emits are building up on land and in oceans, lakes, rivers, ice, and air, and the resulting damage to human and ecological health is currently poorly understood. Most plastic is not recyclable and the vast majority does not biodegrade. Further, plastic products often break down into very small fragments called microplastics that can pollute ecosystems and harm organisms.
The United States alone generated 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018. Of that, 27 million tons was landfilled, 5.6 million tons incinerated, and three million tons, or 8.7 percent may have been recycled. (Some reports suggest that plastic scrap shipped abroad for recycling may instead end up in landfills and waterways.)
Researchers estimate that nearly 7,000 million tons of virgin plastic have been manufactured around the world as of 2015. Of that, 9 percent may have been recycled, 12 percent has been incinerated, and the rest is in landfills, still in use, or in our environment. Globally, about one fourth of plastic waste is never collected. In less wealthy countries, waste plastic is sometimes burned in the open, releasing toxic chemicals into the air.
What is plastic made of?
The main ingredients in plastic come from oil and natural gas processing. Different molecules are used to make different types of plastic, giving them distinctive properties and chemical structures. Manufacturers also mix in additives to give specific products their desired qualities. These chemicals, such as colorants, plasticizers, flame-retardants, stabilizers, fillers, reinforcing fibers, and biocides sometimes contain hazardous substances, including lead, arsenic, and cadmium compounds, as well as BPA.
Plastics that are recyclable are typically downcycled rather than fully recycled. This means that they are turned into products of lesser value that often cannot be recycled again. When plastic waste is turned into a more valuable product, such as clothing or shoes, that is called upcycling.
Recycling results in a product of equivalent value that can be recycled multiple times.
However, the number of times a plastic can be effectively recycled is currently limited. Chemical recycling is an emerging method that chemists are trying to develop. It would break plastics down into their basic, raw materials so that they can be remade and recycled an infinite number of times. Using similar approaches, polymers that are more difficult to recycle could potentially be turned into biodegradable compounds and used in cleaning products.
Because different types of plastics have varying properties, plastic products need to be sorted before they can be recycled. Some packaging, usually used to keep food fresh, cannot be sorted or recycled because it is made from layers of different types of plastic. Scientists are working on solvents that could separate multilayer packaging into its component polymers, which could then be used instead of new plastic. Others are making molecules that would allow multiple types of polymers to mix and still create viable recycled materials.
Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made