My muse failed me yesterday as I did human being stuff: a 30+ mile bike ride and serious housecleaning were both long overdue.
Glass, at least, is easily recyclable. You can take one tequila bottle, melt it down, and make another tequila bottle. With plastic, recycling is more complicated. Unfortunately, that promising-looking triangle of arrows that appears on products doesn’t always signify endless reuse; it merely identifies which type of plastic the item is made from. And of the seven different plastics in common use, only two of them—PET (labeled with #1 inside the triangle and used in soda bottles) and HDPE (labeled with #2 inside the triangle and used in milk jugs)—have much of an aftermarket. So no matter how virtuously you toss your chip bags and shampoo bottles into your blue bin, few of them will escape the landfill —- only 3 to 5 percent of plastics are recycled in any way.
“There’s no legal way to recycle a milk container into another milk container without adding a new virgin layer of plastic,” Moore says, pointing out that, because plastic melts at low temperatures, it retains pollutants and the tainted residue of its former contents. Turn up the heat to sear these off, and some plastics release deadly vapors. So the reclaimed stuff is mostly used to make entirely different products, things that don’t go anywhere near our mouths, such as fleece jackets and carpeting. Therefore, unlike recycling glass, metal, or paper, recycling plastic doesn’t always result in less use of virgin material. It also doesn’t help that fresh-made plastic is far cheaper.
Truth is, no one knows how long it will take for plastic to biodegrade, or return to its carbon and hydrogen elements. We only invented the stuff 144 years ago, and science’s best guess is that its natural disappearance will take several more centuries. Meanwhile, every year, we churn out about 60 billion tons of it, much of which becomes disposable products meant only for a single use.
“Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated—and it’s a very small amount—every bit of plastic ever made still exists,” Moore says, describing how the material’s molecular structure resists biodegradation. Instead, plastic crumbles into ever-tinier fragments as it’s exposed to sunlight and the elements. And none of these untold gazillions of fragments is disappearing anytime soon: Even when plastic is broken down to a single molecule, it remains too tough for biodegradation.
Another article in the same vein here.