What's Really Happening to Recycled Plastic

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With climate change bearing down on all of us, an individual act like sorting your cans, cardboard, and plastics might feel like one of the few solid ways you can keep it all at bay. We're so sold on recycling, just knowing about the process makes us want to buy and do more.

Unfortunately, this issue isn't that simple. As good as our intentions are, most of what's thrown in red, blue, or green bins these days don't actually get processed into something useful and new. As Boston's WBUR reports, almost 80 percent of plastics either wind up in a landfill or are simply incinerated — yes, even the takeout container you meticulously washed first.

Part of it comes down to international relations: Recycling companies in the U.S. have long relied on sending recycled waste to countries like China, which are now refusing to take it on anymore. "We can't recycle our way out of this problem," activist Judith Enck told WBUR. "We have to buy less plastic, and we need American and other businesses to make less plastic. There are alternatives, and I want to emphasize even the most careful consumer has a hard time avoiding plastics."

Don't lose hope, though: Some companies are already trying to nudge how we deal with packaging into something more sustainable. You've also got some further options, per Enck:

  1. Keep at it with paper, metal, glass, and cardboard. If plastics have No. 1, No. 2, or No. 5 on the bottom, they're universally good to go.
  2. Replace your temporary plastic food containers with glass or Pyrex.
  3. Avoid any black plastics you can — they're made from electronic waste (yikes) and can't be recycled at all.