What are the biggest problems with plastic recycling?

Probably the biggest challenge in the war on plastics: We forget to reduce and reuse first.

Ever since the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” began making its rounds, the idea of plastic recycling has seemed like a panacea. Who wouldn’t want to reduce the creation of brand-new plastic and prevent plastic from ending up in the environment—all while continuing to use cheaper, plentiful products?

But recycling isn’t actually easy or practical in many scenarios, meaning the practice isn’t really the one-stop pollution solution it’s commonly believed to be. In fact, there are some real problems with plastic recycling, including unwanted impacts on health and a boomerang effect on pollution itself.

What are the environmental consequences of plastic recycling?

Plastic recycling is commonly believed to be a solution to plastic pollution, but a recent study shows the process may actually increase plastic pollution.1 Researchers studying a U.K. recycling facility found that at least 6% of the plastic waste brought in was shed off when washed, sloughing off microplastics into the water. That number rises to 13% if a filter wasn’t added to stop some material from going down the drain, according to the study.

Meanwhile, other research suggests that recycling plastic may actually increase its toxicity. A 2023 report published by Greenpeace compiled findings on the health impacts of recycling plastic.2 The report particularly noted that mechanical recycling releases the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen, which leads to the toxin showing up in the recycled plastics themselves. 

Is it true that plastic recycling is expensive?

Compared to producing brand-new plastic, recycled plastic is expensive, according to Shelie Miller, an environmental sustainability professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems.

“The biggest issue with plastic is that it’s so cheap to make new plastic,” she said, pointing to the low current price of natural gas, a key ingredient in plastic production. “That’s true of pretty much any recycling material, because the raw material has to compete with the virgin material for someone to want to buy it.” 

Some recyclable materials are able to compete on cost, she added, noting that some, like aluminum, are actually cheaper to recycle into new products than to newly produce. But with plastic, Miller says, the math doesn’t pencil out. “You’re talking about a virgin material that’s incredibly cheap and a recycling process that is just more expensive” in comparison, she says.

Are there technological limits to plastic recycling?

The processes behind turning a used piece of plastic into something new aren’t as efficient as they need to be. For starters, the quality of plastic declines every time it’s recycled, meaning there’s a limit to how much you can feasibly keep that plastic functional. And not many plastics are truly recyclable, because facilities aren’t always able to process certain common types of plastic. 

Plus, even if a facility can handle a given type of plastic, the way it was molded may render it incompatible with the site’s recycling equipment. That’s because there are two main methods for plastic molding: injection and blowing. Injection molding is often used for solid products, while blow molding typically produces “hollow” plastics, like milk jugs. 

“Sometimes we get caught in this cycle of thinking about recycling as the only option when we know we are not going to recycle our way out of this crisis. It is just one of the tools that we need to use to manage plastics.”

Anja Brandon, ocean conservancy

From a production perspective, each method has its advantages and disadvantages but nonetheless can create the usual array of numbered plastics. But even if, for example, a producer used #2 plastic to create numerous products that eventually end up at the same recycling facility, products not made through the same molding process will have different chemical reactions once melted—meaning they can’t be mixed together during recycling.

Our systems to collect plastic aren’t necessarily working, either. Around 80% of American cities and towns used single-stream recycling, which means that residents don’t need to separate their glass, paper, and various plastics before putting them in the bin. 

Doing this has increased contamination in the stream of materials ending up at recycling facilities, making it not cost-effective to process plastics that might otherwise be recyclable. Plastic waste with zero contamination is “much more cost-competitive” than contaminated plastics, according to Miller. However, she notes that even pure, uncontaminated plastic waste is still not usually cheaper to process than just making new plastic.

What are the social and labor implications of plastic recycling?

If the environmental health problems tied to plastic recycling impact us all, it only makes sense that the workers intimately involved in the process are impacted, too. Being a refuse and recyclable material collector is one of the most deadly jobs in the country, according to 2022 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.3

Workers face numerous threats because of the number of tasks that need to be done manually, like operating compactors and handling plastics on conveyor belts, in addition to the chemical biohazards or contaminants they might breathe in or touch. 

And while waste plastic exportation has been on the decline in recent years, nearly a billion pounds of plastic products were moved out of the U.S. to other countries in 2022. The climatological consequences of that transportation are massive; the Plastic Pollution Coalition finds that carbon emissions from plastic waste exported by sea in 2019 were equal to the use of around 26,000 cars.

While Canada receives the most U.S. plastic waste, most of the top importers are less-wealthy countries, like Mexico, India, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to a plastics industry trade publication. And in countries with less stringent labor rights, like in Vietnam and Turkey, recycling workers face the same problems but with fewer protections.

Can we rely less on plastic recycling?

First of all, keep putting accepted plastic products you use in your local recycling bins. If your municipality says it can properly recycle certain plastics—#1 and #2 are most widely recycled—don’t stop recycling just because the broader system is broken. “Sometimes we get caught in this cycle of thinking about recycling as the only option when we know we are not going to recycle our way out of this crisis,” explains Anja Brandon, the associate director of U.S. plastics policy for Ocean Conservancy. “It is just one of the tools that we need to use to manage plastics, but we need to start with reduction and reuse and all of the other tools in the tool chest.”

However, more consequential than recycling your plastics would be to stop using new plastics in the first place. That might seem impossible since every big box store’s aisles are lined with plastic bottles full of shampoo, laundry detergent, and plastic-wrapped fruit. But as more retailers aim to bring products with little-to-no plastic packaging to market or your door, more choices are available for cleaning, beauty, and grocery products that don’t use the material. Dispensers for unpackaged nuts and grains are common at certain grocery companies, like Whole Foods or MOM’s Organic Market, while new startups like The Rounds offer home products and grocery delivery with minimal packaging. And small-scale package-free shops are popping up in neighborhoods around the country; check out this growing guide to where such stores exist.

If you can’t eliminate your use of a product sold in plastic, try to find new, safe ways to re-use the packaging once you’re done with it. Protein powder containers, for example, make awesome resealable bins, as do sauce and peanut butter jars. And plastic spice containers can be used to hold any small items together—like screws, coins or earring backs—or refilled with spices at a package-free shop. 

  1. The potential for a plastic recycling facility to release microplastic pollution and possible filtration remediation effectiveness, Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances, May 2023. ↩︎
  2. Forever toxic: The science on health threats from plastic recycling, Greenpeace, May 2023. ↩︎
  3. National census of fatal occupational injuries in 2021, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dec. 2022. ↩︎