Why Bottle-to-Bottle Recycling Needs to be the Gold Standard

What happens beyond your recycling bin will make or break the ocean plastics crisis.

Items made from recycled plastics are hot commodities right now. Companies are rushing to make everything from sneakers to computer mouses to car parts out of recycled and “ocean-bound” plastics, and demand for recycled plastics has never been higher.

This is pretty great news, because to keep plastics out of our ocean, we need to do it all: reduce the amount of plastics we produce; better manage and recycle what we do produce; and clean up whatever does get out into the environment. We need recycling to work to help keep plastics out of our ocean, but not every path from the recycling bin leads to the same positive impact.

For starters, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in four items placed in recycling bins ends up in landfills. While landfills are certainly less environmentally damaging destinations for trash than the ocean, this still means material is wasted.

Much of what we throw into our recycling bins—and what is found on beaches and waterways around the world—is plastic packaging. Less than 20% of the plastic packaging that does get recycled is turned back into packaging. The vast majority is recycled into durable goods like textiles and carpet, piping, buckets and other products.

It’s great that this packaging waste is not ending up in the ocean or even a landfill—at least not right away; but the catch is that these new products are typically not recycled again.  Every time a plastic bottle gets recycled into anything other than a plastic bottle, we still need to make a new plastic  bottle  to replace it. Since 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, that means we need to extract more oil. So in order to eliminate waste, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and tackle ocean plastic pollution, we need a continuous loop where plastics—and plastic packaging in particular—are re-circulated again and again.

recycling bin filled with plastic bottles and bags

This is why incineration or waste-to-energy technologies are not acceptable solutions to the ocean plastics crisis. Approximately 16% of plastics in the U.S. are incinerated and used (just like fossil fuels) to generate energy. Once these plastics are burned, they’re gone, and the loop has been broken.

Chemical recycling, sometimes called “advanced recycling,” is similar to incineration in that it produces energy from plastic waste. The difference is that the plastics are converted into fuel (like crude oil or synthetic natural gas) through chemical processes rather than burned outright. In both scenarios, though, the loop is broken, and there are no more plastics to recover. That’s why we believe chemical recycling is, at best, a distraction from the real systemic changes we need to keep plastics out of our ocean and break our addiction to fossil fuels. The gold standard for recycling is simple: plastics-to-plastics, bottle-to-bottle.

Check out these fact sheets on plastics and recycling to learn more!

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