The Real Life Cycle of Plastic

Many of us are probably familiar with the satisfying toss of trash into the can. We throw away those bottles gathering on the nightstand with a cathartic toss, rarely giving them a second thought. As the saying goes, a clear space is a clear mind. But our trash cans are not the last stop for our waste, and the truth about where plastic ends up should spur us all into changing our habits.


Where Your Garbage Goes

In theory, recycling is the perfect solution to plastic waste accumulation. All of us dispose of our bottles and cans in separate bins, a truck picks them up and brings them to some unknown, far-off facility where they are magically transformed into another product, and all is well in the world. Or so we think. In reality, there are multiple complications to the recycling process that hinder its effectiveness at reducing plastic accumulation in landfills.

Soiled Waste

For one thing, many are unaware that the waste has to be clean before we dump it in the bin. Oily pizza boxes, greasy aluminum tins, and unrinsed milk cartons cannot be recycled. According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, about 25% of the waste we try to recycle is too contaminated to actually be recycled. As a result, it gets sent to a landfill, where it contributes to methane release and leachate buildup in our groundwater.

Clean Waste

As for the plastic that is clean enough to be recycled, National Geographic reported that only about 9% of the plastic produced worldwide actually gets recycled. Much of the plastic waste we produce ends up in oceans or other bodies of water, contaminating marine environments and harming organic life. About 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year, which is equivalent to dumping one New York City garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day for an entire year! If not the ocean, much plastic waste is dumped in poorly managed landfills or open-air dumps, usually in poorer regions of the world. 

Bottle Depositing

Bottle depositing is one of the most effective recycling measures ever implemented. In return for every bottle or can turned in, users receive five or ten cents in return. In states where bottle deposit bills are in effect, recycling rates are nearly double those in non-bottle-depositing states, and roadside litter is reduced by as much as 70 percent. Why not implement an easy, effective recycling strategy that benefits all in every state, you ask? Capitalism. (Just kidding)(But not really).

Corporate Pushback

Companies like Coca-Cola often promote themselves as proponents of waste reduction throughout the world. Coca-Cola has enacted numerous recycling campaigns over the years, including donating 1 million recycling bins throughout the U.S. and supporting clean-up groups like Keep America Beautiful. However, once it begins to cost them, almost every company in the beverage industry goes to great lengths to avoid recycling. 


As the result of bottle bills, beverage companies like Coca-Cola have to pick up the cost. Due to this unwanted cost, trade groups backing the industry, like the American Beverage Association, continually lobby congress in order to prevent the passage of bottle bills. Nearly every state has proposed some version of a bottle bill in the past, though all but 10 have gotten them passed. 

Due to the various hindrances to proper recycling that we’ve summed up for you here, it is clear that simply throwing our bottles in recycling bins does not really absolve us of our environmental duties. It may be difficult to give up plastic completely, but there is an easy place to start: tap-sourced water coolers. 

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