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Recycling plastic doesn’t work

Daniel Grizelj/Getty

The next time you diligently separate out your plastic waste for recycling, bear this in mind, say Judith Enck and Jan Dell in The Atlantic: it’s totally pointless. While things like paper and glass can easily be broken down and used again, “plastic recycling does not work and will never work”. The fundamental problem is chemical. There are thousands of different plastics, each with their own composition and characteristics, and they can’t be recycled together. The various parts of a fast-food meal, for example – cups, lids, trays, bags, cutlery – are often different and have to be treated differently.

The proof is in the numbers: whereas America recycles 68% of its paper, it manages just 5% of its plastic waste. (That figure used to be almost 10%, but only because we shipped millions of tons of plastic waste to China and pretended it was being recycled there.) Not that you’d know any of this from the plastics industry, of course. Much like Big Tobacco’s efforts to convince smokers that filtered cigarettes were a healthy alternative to unfiltered cigarettes, Big Plastic has “waged a decades-long campaign to perpetuate the myth that the material is recyclable”. It’s not. So by all means carry on recycling your paper, boxes, cans and glass, “because that actually works”. But sadly – boringly – the only way to reduce plastic waste is to reduce plastic use.