Environment Recycling & Waste Why Recycle Plastics? By Larry West Larry West Writer University of Washington Larry West is an award-winning environmental journalist and writer. He won the Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting. Learn about our editorial process Updated January 20, 2021 Share Twitter Pinterest Email Syed Mahabubul Kader/EyeEm/Getty Images Environment Plastics Zero Waste Plastics are used to manufacture an incredible number of products we use every day, such as food and beverage containers, trash and grocery bags, cups and utensils, children's toys and diapers, and bottles for everything from mouthwash and shampoo to glass cleaner and laundry detergent. And that's not even counting all the plastic that goes into furniture, appliances, computers, and automobiles. Suffice it to say, one good reason to recycle plastic is that there is just so much of it. Why You Should Recycle Plastics Plastic Use Is Growing As the use of plastics has increased over the years, they have become a larger part of our nation's municipal solid waste (MSW)—growing from less than one percent in 1960 to more than 12 percent in 2018, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Statista, bottled water sales have been steadily increasing for the past decade: The U.S. saw 8.45 billion gallons of water sold in 2009, and that number reached 14.4 billion gallons in 2019. America is the world's leading consumer of bottled water, and, clearly, that trend continues to grow. It Conserves Natural Resources and Energy Recycling Plastics Saves Landfill Space Recycling plastic products also keeps them out of landfills. Recycling one ton of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space. That's not to mention the discarded plastic that ends up directly in the environment, breaking down into tiny pieces (aka microplastics) to pollute our soil and water and contribute to the oceans' Great Garbage Patches. Recycling plastics reduces the amount of energy and resources (such as water, petroleum, natural gas, and coal) needed to create plastic. Researchers Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley from the Pacific Institute of California have found a pint-sized bottle of water requires about 2,000 times as much energy to produce as the same amount of tap water. It's Relatively Easy Recycling plastics has never been easier. More than 60 percent of Americans have easy access to a plastics recycling program, whether they participate in a municipal curbside program or live near a drop-off site. A universal numbering system for plastic types makes it even easier. According to the American Plastics Council, more than 1,800 U.S. businesses handle or reclaim post-consumer plastics. In addition, many grocery stores now serve as recycling collection sites for plastic bags and plastic wrap. Room for Improvement Overall, the level of plastics recycling is still relatively low. In 2018, only 4.4 percent of plastics in the municipal solid waste stream were recycled, according to the EPA. Alternatives to Plastic While recycling is important, one of the best ways to reduce the amount of plastic in our nation's MSW is to find alternatives. For example, reusable grocery bags have seen a growth in popularity in recent years, and they are a great way to limit the amount of plastic that needs to be generated in the first place. View Article Sources “Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Sales Volume of Bottled Water in the United States from 2010 to 2019(in Billion Gallons).” Statista. Gleick, Peter and Heather Cooley. “Energy Implications of Bottled Water.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 4, 2009, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014009 “2015-16 Centralized Study on Availability of Plastic Recycling.” RRS.