Plastic is everywhere

Some statistics on plastic

  • 430 million tons of plastic is produced yearly
  • One-third of this total takes the form of single-use plastics
  • 95% of the plastic used in packaging is disposed of after one use, a loss to the economy of up to $120 billion annually
  • One-third of this packaging is not collected -> significant economic cost by reducing productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean -> $40 billion in damages
  • Coca-Cola produced 3 million tons of plastic packaging in 2017
  • Average person consumes five grams of plastic every week—mostly from water
  • About 95% of the tap water in the United States is contaminated


Picking up waste is only fixing a symptom of a larger problem

The solution lies further upstream: we have to make less plastic, develop better, more recyclable products, and find sustainable alternatives that increase circularity (keeping products in use as long as possible)

How much plastic is actually being recycled?

In the US, only about 5-6% of plastics are being recycled.

Infrastructure and incentive

The biggest problem is a shortage of the costly infrastructure that's required.

The further from large cities, the less recycling. More state and federal incentives to build an infrastructure for collection is needed.

challenges of recycling

The vast majority of "recycling" is grinding plastic, melting it, and re-forming it. This mechanical recycling well involves properly sorting and cleaning materials, which is time intensive and expensive.

It's also very difficult/impossible to recycle many types of plastic more than once without causing the material to acquire defects and contaminants (many recycled materials contain high levels of unwanted toxins)

local policies for recycling

Local policies make a huge difference.

Maine and Oregon invested in recycling programs, and up to 80% of bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) are recycled. In some states, such as in the South, that percentage is in the single digits.

The national average for these materials is 30%.

Some states have policies that hinder progress.

Industry lobbyists are increasingly helping to institute state-level laws that prevent bans or limits on the use of plastics, especially plastic bags.

Over a dozen states currently have preemptive laws on the books to prevent ordinances limiting plastics

Improving recycling

One, simplify and standardize process of plastic production. Currently more than 10,000 chemicals are used, and upward 3,200 have "one or more hazardous properties of concern"

Second, find a way to process mixed polymers into useful materials, instead of having to sort everything first. For example, chemical process that can transform several types of plastics into propane, and using soil bacterium to break down plastics and re-form them to bioplastics.

Third, using microbes that can break down and recycle PET. One company doing this is Carbios. A microbe discovered in Japan in 2016 was the first one identified that can live solely on plastic as a food source.

reducing demand

To solve the problem in the plastic pollution crisis, we must solve the root problem: plastics are shockingly profitable and cheap

Polymer producers do not pay for the abundant harm they cause. Any solution will require policy and behavioral changes small and large.

Tiny changes can add up to reduce demand and decrease pollution.

Example: policymakers in Washington, DC instituted five-cent charge on plastic bags in 2010, and estimates show number of bags dropped by more than half in months, and quantity found in local waterways dropped 30%-70%

A global Extended Producer Responsibility scheme would be an example of a major shift.

Change will be difficult, but they can be instituted in a way that don't hurt businesses.

Creating incentives for alternatives -> innovation and new jobs.