What Happens to Your Plastic If It’s Not Recycled?

plastic incineration

plastic incineration

Plastic is one of the most popular materials on the planet. And while it was initially invented with good intentions because of its many benefits – such as its’ light weight, durability, and resistance to water – the production and use of plastic have gotten way out of hand.

When single-use and disposable plastics were first invented in the 1950s, they were produced in more manageable quantities that posed little threat to humans or the planet. Now, however, millions of tons of plastic are produced globally every year, and because of those benefits—being durable and long-lasting—it takes years for plastic waste to break down.

While many people assume plastic is still okay because it gets recycled, this isn’t always the case. Not all plastic is actually recyclable. And even the plastic that is recyclable does not always end up being recycled. In fact, of the nearly 40 million metric tons of plastic that is produced in the US annually, less than 10% actually gets recycled.

So, if all that plastic is being made but not recycled, where exactly does it end up?

Where Does Plastic Go When It Isn’t Recycled?

While the majority of Americans agree that plastic recycling is a must, only around 34.7% of them actually recycle. This is likely due to the absence of quality recycling programs including the lack of access to recycling bins or facilities, as well as a general unfamiliarity concerning proper recycling protocols. Also, some people truly just don’t care or won’t make the effort and purposely throw their plastics in the garbage or even leave them to litter the ground.

Unfortunately, no matter the reasons why recycling isn’t being done, it all negatively affects the planet. However, exactly how it affects the planet can vary depending on where the plastic ends up.

  • Landfills: When plastics are thrown in the garbage, they are automatically sent to a landfill. Plastics that are sent to recycling facilities but that are contaminated or are not an accepted plastic at that facility also end up being sent to a landfill. This results in approximately 5% of plastic waste ending up in landfills. And once there, it slowly breaks down over time into microplastics that pollute the air, water, and soil.
  • The Ocean: A significant amount of the plastic produced globally ends up in the world’s oceans and waterways. 80% of that plastic comes from land sources, and 20% comes from marine sources, such as fishing fleets. No matter the source, however, it all is extremely harmful to marine life and coastal environments.
  • Incineration: In some cases, instead of sending it to landfills, plastic will be incinerated for efficiency or to produce energy. Around 15.8% of global plastics are incinerated yearly. Unfortunately, although this keeps plastic out of the landfills, it contributes to harmful greenhouse gases that are produced when the toxic plastics are burned and the fumes release into the atmosphere. The U.S. E.P.A. has strict emissions standards to protect air quality when incinerated for ‘waste to energy’, but many countries burning plastic around the world have no such safeguards in place, not to mention people burning their household waste instead of properly disposing of it.

How Long Does It Take Plastic to Breakdown?

There are numerous types of plastic that are produced, and each one reacts differently when it is left to break down in various environments. The size and thickness of each plastic sample will also affect how long it will take to break down. For example, a PET water bottle may take 500 years to break down in an oxygen-poor landfill but only half that long floating in an ocean when subjected to UV light and thermal oxidation. A plastic shopping bag might take 20 years to decompose in nature, but up to 1,000 when buried in a landfill. In general, most plastics are considered to take around 200 to 1,000 years to decompose.

These numbers are estimates, and there are various influences that contribute to the breakdown of materials, such as where they are located and environmental factors. Still, there is no denying that plastics are incredibly harmful and not just because they take so long to decompose. The longer they sit there, the more they will pollute the environment and pose a threat to human health. In fact, according to the U.S. EPA, “nearly 30 organic hazardous air pollutants have been identified in uncontrolled LFG (landfill gas), including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and vinyl chloride. Exposure to these pollutants can lead to adverse health effects.” Landfills are also the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.

How Polly Products Is Reducing Plastic Waste

At Polly Products, we use 100% recycled plastic to create our furniture allowing us to meet and exceed the EPA’s guidelines for park and recreation products. Our products help keep plastic out of landfills and natural environments by repurposing plastic. Everything we do is green, from our products to our company beliefs and practices. We are fully committed to ecological conservation.

Located in rural Michigan, our company shares humble values and believes in delivering quality products. We proudly supply environmentally responsible outdoor furniture, 100% made and assembled in the USA. Click here to learn more about our green promise and how Polly Products is making a difference.