Why Plastic Recycling Doesn't Work

19th April 2023
Updated 4th July 2024

“The sad truth is that less than 10% of everyday plastic – the plastic packaging that the things we buy is wrapped in – actually gets recycled in the UK”

Greenpeace activist stands on an heavily polluted beach with a sign which reads, 'This is what plastic pollution looks like'
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Many of us think we are doing our bit by recycling plastic? Is that right?

A system which focuses on plastic recycling enables plastic pollution to continue albeit it a lesser rate. It simply delays the inevitable disposal of plastic, and there’s no good way to do that. Less than 10% of all the plastic created has been recycled. The term ‘plastic recycling’ is a contradiction. Recycling implies a sustainable, natural cycle. Plastic recycling does not fit that remit. A recent study of a UK plastics recycling facility estimated that up to 75 billion microplastic particles were released into each cubic meter of wastewater. This is clearly unhealthy and unsustainable.

There are more than 10,000 chemicals which constitute plastics, so the potential number of types is ginormous. Mixed plastics cannot simply be recycled together. They need to be separated to be recycled. Some cannot be effectively recycled at all. This gives rise to a massive problem of identifying and sorting prior to processing. And such processing requires transportation, energy and further resources. This processing costs money whilst further harming the environment. Hence virgin plastic is generally cheaper meaning that plastic recycling is not economically viable.

Supermarkets claim to recycle soft plastics. A Bloomberg reporter tracked Tesco soft plastic recycling. Of the 3 trackers, one disappeared, the other 2 ended up at an incinerator in Turkey.

Coca Cola ecocide: Coca Cola bottle with plastic waste spewing out of it

Plastic recycling is a scam (article 1 | article 2). It is claimed that Big Oil has known since the 1970s that a system of plastic recycling wasn’t viable yet promoted that system anyway. It is claimed that big plastic polluters such as Coca Cola also knew. Indeed Big Soda has lobbied through trade associations to block legislation on plastic reforms whilst promising publicly to cut waste; deception and manipulation; profit over people.

Plastic recycling is not the way to solve plastic pollution. Our current system of plastic recycling, landfill, incineration / waste-to-energy and illegal dumping is unhealthy and unsustainable. Plastic pollutes throughout its existence using energy and resources. It’s best not to create it in the first place. This can be done by reducing consumption, implementing systems of reuse, and by using natural materials instead.

Further learning

  • The Recycling Condrum by Surfers Against Sewage.
  • The Life of a Plastic Bottle shows well the need for reuse over single-use.
  • Our 'take action' section provides many simple ways to reduce plastic.