What are the main benefits of plastic recycling?

Recycling is preferable to sending rubbish to the dump—but it’s not a perfect system

How to recycle plastic

Plastic is quite literally everywhere. From car parts to the clothes on our bodies and the shampoo we use on our heads, so much of American life revolves around products made of or contained in plastic.

But why is it so common? Products made of plastic are cheaper—during both manufacture and transportation—than those made of other materials while remaining somewhat durable. That makes it more attractive both for companies looking to transport and sell more things and consumers after a deal. Why not? We tell ourselves. I can just recycle it. 

All that pervasive plastic adds up, and many people indeed think “recycle” before they opt to “reuse” or “reduce”. Of course, recycling is preferable to sending rubbish to the dump. But before we get into the benefits of recycling, let’s be clear: very little plastic actually gets recycled. 

How much plastic is recycled?

The Environmental Protection Agency says the plastic recycling rate is less than 9%, much of which is stuff made from #1 and #2 plastic—good luck with numbers 3 through 7.1 That means every year, millions and millions of tons of America’s discards end up in a landfill or polluting the natural environment.  Some countries do recycle way more than the U.S. The EU, for instance, had an average 38% recycling rate for plastic packaging back in 2020.2

Many other countries aren’t recycling very much at all, and dozens of countries recycle even less than the U.S., according to a ranking of international recycling rates published by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy. Countries like Taiwan, Japan, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina all received lower recycling scores. Even Costa Rica, which usually is heralded for its environmental action, was ranked near the bottom.

That’s to say, while recycling plastic does benefit our communities and environment, the current impact of recycling pales in comparison to what it could be if more plastic truly met that fate—or more importantly if we made less single-use plastic to begin with.

Does recycling plastic help the environment?

In theory, recycling plastic should reduce the pressure on our landfills, ecosystems, and natural resources. But since the vast majority of plastic isn’t recycled, that’s not what’s happening across the country and around the entire world.

Instead, about 18.5% of America’s municipal solid waste (read: everything sent to the dump) in 2018 was plastic, according to the EPA. Consider the impact plastic recycling, reuse, or reduction could have if the system functioned as intended. As landfills around the world are reaching their limits, those facilities could last for longer if less avoidable waste went into them.

A lot of plastic goes into landfills, but our natural environments are also inundated by plastic pollution. Ecosystems are diverse as deserts, rainforests, and rivers suffer from piles of plastic abandoned in them—as do the wildlife that live in those places. But our oceans are perhaps the most well-known example of plastic pollution, and for good reason. “The ocean really has been ground-zero for the plastic pollution crisis,” notes Anja Brandon, the associate director of U.S. plastics policy for Ocean Conservancy, during a recent webinar.

In theory, recycling plastic should reduce the pressure on our landfills, ecosystems, and natural resources. But since the vast majority of plastic isn’t recycled, that’s not what’s happening across the country and around the entire world.

Creating brand-new plastics also involves a lot of natural resources. For example, it takes over two dozen gallons of water to create a pound of plastic.3 Fossil fuels are another natural resource vital to plastic production. In fact, “over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel and plastic industries are deeply connected,” explains the Center for International Environmental Law

Recycling plastic can help reduce the overall amount of natural resources we use and, considering the amount of fossil fuels required in the process, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. About 3.4% of total global emissions in 2019 trace back to plastics.4

Are there any financial or economic benefits of recycling plastic?

Failing to recycle plastic can have a negative financial impact. No one wants to pay a lot of money to live in a polluted neighborhood or next to a plastic-filled river, and the cost to remove plastic from the environment is staggering. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has previously estimated the cost to clean up just plastic dumped in the ocean to be around $150 billion.

And until plastic is removed from our environments, the economic toll will likely mount from lost or degraded ecosystem services, which are all of the direct or indirect benefits we derive from nature without necessarily paying for them, such as pollination.5 A 2019 study in Marine Pollution Bulletin found that marine plastic pollution causes a loss of ecosystem benefits that, if we paid for them, would cost up to $2.5 trillion every single year.6 For context, that number isn’t too far away from the projected U.S. federal budget deficit for fiscal year 2023.

Given that, there’s clearly a financial benefit to properly recycling plastic rather than letting it float out into the environment. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), “communities across the country spent about $2.3 billion on plastic waste disposal in 2019.” 

Unwanted plastic can also be turned into something useful–and therefore make money. NREL finds that “the annual market value of landfilled plastic ranges from $4.5 billion to $9.9 billion, or $7.2 billion on average,” meaning we’re nowhere near maximizing the potential financial benefit of recycling plastic.7

  1. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2020. ↩︎
  2. Plastic packaging waste: 38% recycled in 2020, Eurostat, Oct. 2022/ ↩︎
  3. Corporate water footprint accounting and impact assessment: The case of the water footprint of a sugar-containing carbonated beverage, Water Resources Management, Oct. 2010. ↩︎
  4. Global Plastics Outlook, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Feb. 2022. ↩︎
  5. Microplastics and nanoplastics effects on plant−pollinator interaction and pollination biology, Environmental Science and Technology, Apr. 2023. ↩︎
  6. Global ecological, social and economic impacts of marine plastic, Marine Pollution Bulletin, May 2019. ↩︎
  7. Quantification and evaluation of plastic waste in the United States, Resources, Conservation & Recycling, Aug. 2022. ↩︎