What Happens to All That Plastic?
Editor’s Note (11/27/2017): This post was updated with new statistics on plastic waste generation and recycling, as well as new information on methods of reuse.
What would modern life be like without plastic? According to The World Economic Forum, plastic production has exploded over the last half-century, growing from 16.5 million tons in 1964 to 343 million tons in 2014; it is projected to double by 2036. Where does all of it go when we’re done with it?
In 2014, Americans discarded about 33.6 million tons of plastic, but only 9.5 percent of it was recycled and 15 percent was combusted to create electricity or heat.
Most of the rest ends up in landfills where it may take up to 500 years to decompose, and potentially leak pollutants into the soil and water. It’s estimated that there are already 165 million tons of plastic debris floating around in the oceans threatening the health and safety of marine life. And an average of 8.8 million more tons enter the oceans each year, including microplastics, tiny particles less than five millimeters long from cosmetics, fabrics or the breakdown of larger pieces, which may be ingested by marine wildlife.
Relatively little of our plastic waste is recycled because there are various types of plastic with different chemical compositions, and recycled plastics can be contaminated by the mixing of types. Plastic waste is also contaminated by materials such as paper and ink. Separating plastics from other recyclables, and different types of plastic from each other, is labor-intensive and so far there has been no easy solution.
Although the Society of Plastic Industries developed seven codes to distinguish types of plastic for recycling, in reality, only two—polyethylene terephthalate (PET, used for synthetic fibers and water bottles) and high density polyethylene (HDPE, used for jugs, bottle caps, water pipes)—are routinely recycled. But in more and more cities like New York and Chicago, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic bags are now being recycled too. And increasingly, the recycling industry’s use of near‐infrared spectroscopy, which can identify the chemical composition of plastics, is improving the efficiency and speed of recycling.
Plastics that can be recycled are first sorted, shredded and rid of impurities like paper. The shreds are then melted and formed into pellets, which can be made into other products.
MoistureShield in Arkansas, and Virginia-based Trex recycle polyethylene into outdoor decking material, fencing, and doors and windows. Coca Cola is increasing the amount of recycled plastic in its bottles to 50 percent.
Plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas in a chemical process that combines smaller molecules into a large chainlike molecule, often with other substances added to give it particular qualities. (Some, like phthalates and bisphenol A, can have harmful health effects.) Plastic production is estimated to use four percent of global oil production—both as the raw material and for energy in the manufacturing process. Because these polymers embody energy from fossil fuels (and actually have a higher energy value than coal and wood), leaving so much of it in landfills is not only an environmental hazard, it is a huge waste of a valuable resource that could be used to produce electricity, heat, or fuel.
The Plastics Division of the American Chemical Council asked the Earth Institute’s Earth Engineering Center to explore ways of recovering the energy inherent in non-recycled plastics. The 2011 report, which was updated in 2014, determined that the amount of energy contained in the millions of tons of plastic in U.S. landfills is equivalent to 48 million tons of coal, 180 million barrels of oil, or one trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If all this plastic were converted into liquid fuel, it could produce 5.7 billion gallons of gasoline, enough to power 8.9 million cars per year. And the fact is, there are now technologies that can put all this waste to good use.
The report examined three ways of utilizing non-recycled plastic for energy production: converting it directly into liquid fuel, using separated plastics as fuel in special types of power plants, and increasing the amount of garbage burned in waste-to-energy facilities.
Plastics can be converted into crude oil or other types of products through pyrolysis, a high heat process that does not use oxygen. Agilyx, an Oregon-based company, has developed a system that heats polystyrene from foam cups, packaging materials, and Styrofoam to create a styrene monomer, a building block of the plastic industry. The final liquid product can be sold to other refiners to produce oil or to make more polystyrene.
Plastic2Oil in Niagara Falls, NY, uses unwashed, unsorted waste plastic to produce ultra-low sulfur fuels that do not require further refining. The company maintains that its process is “highly green, clean and scalable.”
A number of other companies in the U.S., Africa, Asia and Europe are investing in technology that produces liquid fuel from plastic wastes.
According to the updated Earth Engineering Center report, power plants specially designed to use non-recycled plastics as fuel could theoretically produce 61.9 million MWh of electricity, enough to power 5.7 million homes.
Burning more garbage in waste-to-energy facilities would recover the energy inherent in plastics and reduce greenhouse gas emissions since landfills emit methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide) as garbage decomposes. Unlike incinerators of the past, modern waste-to-energy facilities produce electricity and heat in boilers designed for complete combustion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said they produce electricity “with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.”
If the amount of garbage sitting in U.S. landfills in 2011 was burned in waste-to-energy facilities, it could theoretically yield enough electricity to power 13.8 million households and reduce coal use by 100 million tons a year. In 2015, 71 waste-to-energy facilities and four other power plants in the United States burned 29 million tons of garbage, generating nearly 14 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.
A 2009 United Nations Environmental Programme report on converting plastic waste into a resource described the production of gaseous fuels, using high heat to decompose plastic waste, and solid fuel derived from a mixture of waste plastic, paper, and wood. The materials are first shredded, sorted then made into pellets. A number of companies in Japan are producing both solid and gaseous fuels. The Showa Denko company, headquartered in Tokyo, uses heat gasification to recycle plastic waste into ammonia, used to manufacture many products, and CO2 for carbonization.
Liter of Light, a grassroots movement with partnerships around the world, has found another way to recycle plastic bottles. It helps energy-poor communities convert discarded soda bottles into solar bottle bulbs to illuminate homes and streets. The organization has installed over 350,000 bottle lights in more than 15 countries.
The best solutions for our plastic problem are still to reduce our use of them, and to reuse and recycle whenever possible. More policies that ban plastic bag use, require bottle deposits and expand recycling would help. But millions of tons of plastic waste still sit in landfills around the country; technologies that are able to tap this waste as a resource can offer multiple benefits, helping to clean up the environment, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, decrease our use of non-renewable virgin resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and generate energy.
[…] Columbia University, and a freelance environmental writer. Please check out my latest blog post, What Happens to All That Plastic? In 2011, Columbia University/Earth Institute’s State of the Planet was named an official […]
is there a more recent update to this information? please post a link to more recent articles or documentations on this subject please. Thank you.
Fantastic, informative!! Thank you!
Excellent report that covers nearly all bases. “Plastics”, in overall, is the most versatile and useful material invented by humans but this versatility is due to thousands of compounds of different compositions and properties. This is the main reason why recyclin of plastics to materials has been limited, as reported by Renee. What is the alternative? Recovery of the energy content of plastics, either in the form of syngas or “synoil” or as electrical and thermal energy. All of these routes require thermal treatment of plastic wastes. Well meaning people who oppose thermal treatment forget that “the gift of fire” marked the beginning of civiliazation and, to this day, is the mainstay of most material goods we enjoy.
WOW! I have never agreed with someone so much!
It’s a shame we have become such a disposable society, whatever happened to using a drink bottle and filling it up with water, instead of wasting our earth’s precious resources using plastic water bottles?
Wow, thats really cool. Talk about reusing recycling a product. Im sure there are a number of cost efficient ways to reclaim the plastic, and turn it [reused plastic] into anything you want. I think that subsidies from the government that help these types of programs just end up hurting the program in the end. The subsidies keep the costs high. Thats what i think.
We are so used to taking and using plastic for granted without thinking of the detrimental effects that it has on society and the environment. It’s great to see that we have found ways to reduce pollution and reuse plastics. We know the many benefits of recycling something old to make something new, so we encourage the idea of reusing and recycling, instead of replacing.
Wow! Thank you, Gertrude! I’ve never agreed more! I’ll be sharing this on my facebook!
Plastic can be recycled into diesel. It can be used to produce oil. It can be used to construct roads. Plastic is poison for our environment. It cannot be degraded by environment in natural way that’s by recycling the only way to get rid of it.
oil is just as toxic if not more.. get your facts straight
[…] it. Plastic takes one thousand years to bio-degrade in the landfill and out of the 33.6 million plastics a year that are discarded only 6.5 % get recycled. Step three: Start a petition asking my local […]
why dont people just go though the trash and find the recycle
We wants to dedicated ourselves to creating safe alternatives to plastic products. BPA-free and biodegradable plastics can only address some of the concern — and it’s far from a big-picture solution. Glass, stainless steel, bamboo, and other materials are just as effective and don’t have any of plastics’ inherent dangers. By selecting these alternatives, you’re making healthier choices for your family and our planet.
[…] and in the ocean. There is no definitive number on how much plastic is floating in the ocean. The State of the Planet blog from Earth Institute at Columbia University puts the number in the hundreds of million of tons, […]
And what of the energy and CO2 costs of transporting plastic, which is more or less evenly distributed everywhere people are? I can’t think of any fuel that has to gathered in small increments from almost everywhere and taken to these plants. There was a huge study in Germany that was published last year, that looked at all of these issues, and they found that virgin plastic bags were superior to bioplastic and recycled plastic bags, in terms of environmental impact. With a little of an additive, plastic could be made biodegradable in landfills – which would provide methane. 2/3 of all garbage in the US goes into landfills which are tapped for methane, and enough methane is harvested to run tens of millions of automobiles, in the US alone.
Great research and article. Glad to see you cover this topic. More people need to keep in mind the plastic waste they create once its ‘out of sight’.
Love this article. Great reality check for everyone.
I think that anything that keeps waste out of landfill is a blessing!
We are in the construction industry, and are faced with waste everyday. We take great pride in re purposing whatever we can.
This is a great article, thank you!
A ban on plastic shopping bags is like “spitting in the wind”. Let’s all have a reality check folks! I am all for cleaning up our environment. However, singling out one source of plastic waste is absurd! All of you out there that are standing on your “soapboxes” calling for the ban of plastic shopping bags have no clue what effect that would have on the hard working Americans that produce these bags including the pyramid of suppliers and companies that support the manufacturers. The next time you are at the checkout line or strolling through the aisles of your local supermarket or convenience store, just stop for moment and take notice of all the items, wrapped, packed, stacked and labeled with plastic. I would have to make very an un-scientific guess that maybe 80% of all items you are putting into your “demonized” plastic shopping bags contain or are solely protected/packaged by plastic. This includes items packaged within a paper box. Think about it. There is FAR MORE processed plastic products going INTO your shopping bag, then there is contained within the shopping bag itself. Let’s not forget that we throw this all out into a big black heavy garbage bag. A plastic shopping bag ban is a total waste of time! The only sane option should be an enforceable plastic bag recycling program. ALL PLASTIC! Thank you for taking the time to read my post.
I think it’s a great idea to single out plastic water because it is the leader in the pollution of our oceans, rivers, and lakes.
Has anyone thought of taking all this plastic and dump it into a volcano? I believe the volcano heat will take care of all this plastic and we won’t have to look back and worry about where to put this plastic. At the same time we could be creating a new job and pay someone to take this plastic to a volcano. After all, the volcano put this substance back the earth.
I agree with Edgar Allen….Hm what if we do put all the plastic in a volcano? Will it really work? Is it safe enough? Is it realistic enough? What if people accidentally fall in there ?
Just saying, but do people really fall into volcanos right now with out plastic in it?
i think mixture of plastic solution with cement can be use for the flooring of a water area also,but their is need to find out more.
Pull the other one
its got bells on..
I do not believe this HW about plastic burning clean of an instant,I see a bunch of greedy industrialists drooling at the profit lines available ,and their pet “scientists” calmly adjusting “allowable limits” as our atmosphere literally goes up in smoke”
“Power plants specially designed to use plastics as fuel could theoretically produce 1.8 MWh of electricity per ton of waste plastic. Pennsylvania-based EcoClean Burners, Inc. burns plastic pellets (made from unrecycled waste plastic) to create energy for industrial boilers and companies that use steam during the manufacturing process. Based on technology developed in South Korea, the process produces no harmful emissions and uses fuel that is 30 percent cheaper than oil or natural gas.”
this too me is the same ol BS you can eat petroleum jelly too, You will not die immediately, look at hydrogenated oils,we ate THAT crap for 40 years…
Edgar Allen Poe? imagination runs deep!
The real problem is that in over 2 years only around 20 people have bothered to comment on this article. Chances are that the number of people that actually care are in too short of numbers. I found it to be an excellent and informative look at a topic that sadly we will look back on and think why didn’t we do something about it then when we had the chance. But as long as everyone has their latest reality show, their newest app, their whatever it is to distract them from what’s really going on around them then the few that do care and their efforts won’t be enough. Our childrens children will be the ones to suffer but lets face it how many people would be willing to give up the comforts of today. And even if we would be willing there’s always some corporation or some other group who will make sure that the facts are skewed, that enough people are told to say otherwise or that its buried so deep that it will never be none until it is too late. Take climate change our government just cut from the budget millions of dollars that were the help things but instead big biz has opted to take their tax breaks with that money instead. Programs like the ones mentioned here are great but there is not enough money it to make anyone able to change things to better the environment. I don’t know who said it but they were so right… “Modern technology owes ecology an apology” Great articleand thank you for sharing it with us.
Kinds of plastic waste has been a problem in our dailylife. Thanks to the technology development, now we have the ability to reuse or transfer it other useful products for us. One of popular tech is pyrolysis. That will need all kinds of machines to make a pyrolysis plant to make it possible. It cost a lot, but it is still profitable. Hope gov can spend more money to support this type of enterprise.
I completely agree with Lynda. At the same time, I think that almost everyone agrees that it is a problem and will likely throw money at it. I know for a fact, that I’d like to work day in and day out in solving this huge problem but I don’t know where to start. If someone has enough money to fund an integral plastic waste management/recycling program please let me know.
The key to global recycling success are crowds: we have to introduce them that recycling make really sense. I often speak to people and the majority thinks that waste separation doesn’t pay off. They think that all the garbage goes together again, finally. That’s a big misconception. In the US, separated trash never goes together again. KEEP ON SEPARATING! AND DON’T BUY CANS AND PLASTIC BOTTLES FOR ONE TIME USE!!!
Plastic is forever! The plastic is something which should be recycled because it could lasts really forever. We should learn from the zero waste people how to reduce the plastic waste to minimum.
Recycling plastic bags and film packaging is important due to the high cost of disposing of it and its impacts on the environment when it becomes litter.
I thought that this article was amazing, lost of verry important informatio. So from now on we should only reuse shopping bags. Now we just need to tell the rest of the world that
I am making a technique, in which waste plastic can be convert in use able products. according to my opinion we can be solve plastic pollution problem in the world. but i don’t know hot to come in form of world . This machine work in golden principal of waste plastic material. so what i can do? Near me has technique but not way but i know it is need of feature.
We are taking that would be buried plastic and turning it into picnic tables, park benches, and landscaping timbers.. These natural products have been problem areas in the past as wood rots / decays, metal rusts, but since plastics lasts for a very long time, are impervious to moisture and insects, it is a 2-fold effect when these products are put to use in their new home. No more rot, no more landfill!
> Why don’t homes/businesses/collection points have small machines that can melt/mould our plastics down to a bricks for collection by our local councils? That way it isn’t in a form that can blow away or go down the gutter and out to sea. It would also make it easier to store and easier for companies to reuse who have the machinery to recycle it.
Let’s take a look at bioplastics as an alternative to oil based products. Henry Ford used soy beans once in making automobile parts. We need to look out side of the box. We depend too much on oil which is not an unlimited resource.
What are we supposed to use electric cars that pollute more when you charge them?
we shuld stay on cars that burn gas because they dont have to get charges every day
Has anyone ever worked with reducing bio waste? What have you done? What did you face? How did it turn out?
I want to learn more about any plastic containers (all types) that get generated from bio-laboratories and how they were recycled by following the current OSHA guidelines.
This is very very informative . Gives a lot of clarity on what happens to plastic that is recycled and thrown into landfills . I applaud the companies that are converting the catastrophic amount of plastic waste on our planet. However, a few points that should emphasized:
-plastic is mainly composed of petroleum
-petroleum is harmful to the environment when extracted – i.e. Oil spills , fracking etc.
-reducing and ultimately eliminating petroleum based plastics should be the goal
– there are so many other sustainably sourced materials that can make plastic, focus on those
-even if the plastic we waste gets converted to energy, how do we address the once again catastrophic amount that winds up in our oceans creating a plastic soup?
I personally feel that the age of dirty energy such petroleum will soon come to an end and a brighter future of common sense forms of fuel will take over.
A meaningful article. Waste plastic can be seen everywhere, it pollutes our planet. Recycling plastic is the best solution.
If only 6.5% of plastic is recycled, it follows that filling our recycling bins full of the stuff is a net negative to the environment if one considers (1) the fossil fuel burned picking it up and (2) the energy need to convert the 6.5% discarded plastic that is actually recycled into something useful. Public policy focuses way too much on recycle, when the focus should be reduce. Make recycling pick-ups once or twice a month only for only cans and paper to save the useless burning of gasoline, and put plastic and glass directly into landfill where almost all of it ends up anyway. Consider a tax incentives so packaging companies will use more environmentally sound materials than non-biodegradable plastics.
It seems the “obvious ” answer is too scary.
The truth is every Gov does projections on pop growth, education needs, roads traffic, and recycling. So how long can we sustain this Earth with all this garbage and low recycling abilities….? A few decades, a hundred years? Apparently the Governments know something is going to happen in the next 50 years that makes RECYCLING MOOT. There is an Extinction event that will occur that will make the need to recycle unnecessary. Our INFLATION for the last 35 years points to our Economics crashing and currency losing value in the same timr frame of under 50 years proves that THE GOVERNMENTS know something and have pushed prices up to get the most out of the Earth’s population while our money still buys things services ,slaves ect…
QUESTION: what do you think will happen in the next 20 to 50 years?
I lived in Leicester – there is a waste burning plant there which burns rubbish, and uses it to heat local nearby blocks of flats. Free heating for pensioners and so forth. I has been in operation for some 30 years, and is a really good idea. What about using this idea more widely?
What about reducing the types of plastic allowed to be used for throw away packaging. Restricting packaging to, lets say 2 types that have good recyclable qualities, and would be easier to sort than 7. Making this cheap, easier to sort, raw material available for re-use would be more attractive for companies who manufacture packaging, and for the companies who buy it.
I walk the shores of the ocean and the marshes here in New England daily. The amounts of plastic trash I see is unsettling. I am glad to learn from this article that there are positive options being developed to process and use these ‘disposable’ plastic resources. Humanity – suicide by plastics – I hope not!
Guys thing about it animals are dying because of our world littering . When you look at your product that your buying please check if it has a recycling sign . We should all be recycling and not wasting. Think about it . We are united and we should know better .I am 11 year old and this is a topic we are learning about in School.
When plastic was first invented, it was hailed as a miracle material. After all, it has thousands of uses from plastic bottles to the modern-day computers and smart phones. It is available at a cheap price and there are many different types of plastics with a variety of uses. However, plastic is effectively non-biodegradable which means that natural processes may take thousands of years to degrade plastic products.
For me, I think pyrolysis of plastic to fuel oil is great manner to recycle waste plastic.
How much oil may be get after 2 ton plastic melted.How can increase recovery of oil.
Burning plastic produces toxic emissions. Some European countries claim they are very careful to control these emissions, but not everyone would be so careful. Before allowing waste to energy incineration, the US needs to have national incineration standards that are much stricter. If not, then poor people living near incinerators would incur the considerable health risk.
Shouldn’t manufacturers then limit the amount of plastic they produced?
I think manufacturers should start making bio-degradable plastics;too much ending up in our landfills and oceans.If we all do our part and reduce,reuse,recycle;it would help.
I work in a big box store in Central Oregon and it amazes me how people rely on plastic bags as they are too cheap to buy biodegradable ones at a health store. I always ask and they love plastic for their garbage or pet waste. I will love the day when Oregon gets rid of plastic bags. They rip, they tear,the handles break. We have really thin ones that we use in nour store. I love the biodegradeable ones but are they really is the question. A lot of people do bring reuseable and I thank them. It is also easier.
The world must scale down on renovations. This is unnecessary landfill.
I think that we should just make it to where the plastic has to be bio-degradable for it to be sold to the general public
I am confused. If we can not recycle take out containers and should not put them into the landfill to languish forever, what can we do with them?
@Thelma Try bringing your own jar or tupperware to the restaurant or take out place, you might be surprised how many are willing to work with you and skip the packaging if you come prepared with your own!
The whole world needs to consider this “Plastic” on the serious note. I would suggest everyone to start generating awareness on a small level so that we can avoid using plastic and save our planet.
I’m highly sceptical about the claimed successes of recycling from political commentators and suspect that the problem is merely being exported to China and the Far East.
The tide of ocean bourne plastics originating from these country’s is most likely our waste. Illegal practices will be exasperated by corruption at home and the low price of oil.
Get real world and tackle the realities. The green lobby in particular needs to investigate, deliver the truth and shame our own Governments and institutions to bring pollution under control.