Is there growing scientific consensus that recycling plastic is bad for the environment?

I’ve been listening to the arguments of a local environmental advocate who is adamant that plastic should not be recycled because its further use (especially if it is, for example, turned into a park sculpture that is exposed to UV rays) breaks it down into microplastics that we inhale, get into waterways, etc. Instead, all plastic should be sequestered in landfills until we develop sufficient technology to depolymerize it.

I’ve never heard this before and my Googlefi is not up to the task of finding scientific support or rebuttal for the above position.

I do know that a lot of conventional recycling has done more to make people who carefully sort their plastic by number comfortable than it has to save the environment, as in the past a lot of stuff supposedly earmarked for recycling was just shipped off to China and burned. However, that is not the issue I’m asking about. Rather, what about plastics that are made into new objects - shopping bags or park benches for example?

There really isn’t any, or very little, recycling of plastic being done at all. Almost all of it goes into a landfill with the other garbage. As you state in your OP a lot of the supposed recycling is done to make us all feel good about doing our part to save the environment. All we are really doing is separating our plastic upstream, and later downstream it gets put in with the rest of the garbage in the landfill.

So, can you show us where this plastic recycling is actually happening? Where are large amounts of plastic being turned into new products in a significant amount? Is the point that your environmental advocate making that we should just save it for a time in the future when we have the technology to recover it in a usefull way? If so, then he/she/they is correct, there is currently no real way to recycle most plastics.

Greenpeace report finds most plastic goes to landfills as production ramps up : NPR

I make no claim that any of the activities are “large scale.” But there seem to me to be plenty of small-scale efforts to turn plastic waste into art and functional objects -

The art collective Thing Thing makes recycled plastic into art with kids in Detroit

There seem to be any number of cottage industries that create items like purses and shopping bags from plastic

And lots of groups make art from discarded plastic

This company makes composite decking material “from an innovative blend of 95% reclaimed wood and recycled plastic film.”

Just as an aside you can specifically search scholarly articles on Google using:

Not sure if you were aware of this or not. This is not meant to be snarky. Meant to help future internet searches if you were unaware.

Actually, I wasn’t aware of it, so thanks. I’ll see if that helps.

Landfills aren’t black holes. Plastic breaks down in them, just like it would in a park, and will get into the environment, same as that from the the sculpture.

AIUI from the OP, the idea is that we will eventually develop technology to break it down safely, and we want to hold onto it until then until we can engage that future tech wholesale. If we spread the plastic out (via recycling, or via scattering it throughout landfills) it’ll make it harder to put that future-tech to use.

@Dallas_Jones has answered this question most completely: the growing scientific consensus seems to be that plastic recycling is irrelevant, and that folks concerned about the effect on the environment should compare the nearly-nonexistent plastic recycling industry to the alternative of using less plastic to begin with.

Here’s a study that might be relevant.

Note that this study addresses (at least in the abstract) neither the prevalence of recycling in the real world, nor the alternative of using less plastic. It is limited to considering what to do with plastic products once they’re no longer being used.

I’m a big fan of Polywood outdoor furniture, not because they recycle HDPE but because their product outperforms anything we have used in the past (by our criteria at least), including some expensive teak. They might be a drop in the bucket and only addressing uncolored HDPE, but it’s something.

An overview of their recycling process is here. I assume the concern in this case is in all the chopping and pelletizing and not with microplastic emission from the final product?

Actually it is the micro plastic emission from the final product. The advocate points out that art installations our parks get a lot of UV radiation (I’m in Hawai’i) and this increases the rate of breakdown.

It seems to me that one factor to consider is the local alternatives - we only have a couple of landfills on island and I don’t know how effective they are at keeping plastic out of the environment.

That answer is tangential to the OP though. I am not saying @Dallas_Jones was wrong to bring up a discussion point, but it can’t be called an answer to the OP.

Even if plastic recycling is not as large-scale as we’re all led to believe, it’s still relevant (indeed, important) to know whether plastic recycling is actually good for the environment. Because we might advocate for large-scale recycling (and indeed, I have been a proponent of that) then find a worse situation than the status quo.

Agreed. And, in this particular case, whether it is true that recycling is actually BAD for the environment.

One argument being made against recycling plastic into art (aside from the main one that it actually speeds up the transformation into microplastics) is that it sends the wrong message - “hey, we can solve the problem of plastic pollution by recycling!” when in fact that is not the case.

My personal take on that argument is that while it is valid, “stop recycling plastic into art!” is not necessarily the only response - “build a strong educational component into the activity that tells the truth about plastic” might be preferable to not doing the project and not educating anyone.

Oops, I suddenly realize that the ‘case’ you meant by your question was probably the Trex, not the art recycling, so my answer was little off target. But I suspect you are correct. The environmentalist in question says that the chopping/pelletizing process also releases bad stuff into the environment.

Yeah, that’s what I meant, I just phrased it awkwardly :slight_smile:

My opinion is that plastics are incredibly useful, and telling people to just use less of them is going to have limited effect while equal alternatives aren’t really there for many things.
I would be happy for governments to legislate at the supply side; incentivizing companies to use plastics that are easier / more economical to recycle, or that they have to aid with recycling in other ways.

I know this sounds like I am absolving myself of responsibility, but I am a little skeptical of how far personal effort based messages (“use less energy”, “waste less food” etc) can go. They can help, but they will only ever be part of the solution.

Plus, it just seems bizarre to me that corporations across much of the world have had a free pass on this. When plastics were newly invented, fair enough, we made them, we didn’t put much thought into what happens next. But now, with production lines churning out hundreds of millions of tonnes of the stuff per year…there’s no excuse for that short-sighted thinking any more.

I agree. I do what I can to reduce my plastic consumption, including some measures that impose noticeable personal cost in terms of time/expense/taste. For example - I make my own yogurt from powdered milk rather than buy yogurt in plastic containers, or milk in cartons, even though it doesn’t taste as nice. I also wash and reuse the plastic freezer bags I bought a long time ago (I won’t buy them ever again, but thanks to a Costco overbuying mistake I had quite a supply on hand already when I decided to minimize my plastic use, so I figure I’ll use what I’ve got).

Despite being as virtuous as I can be, I find myself tossing plastic into the garbage constantly. A lot of food and household necessities are wrapped in plastic. It’s unavoidable.

A couple of things in that article stand out to me as suspicious.

First, they come out saying that there is no such things as a recyclable plastic in production, by the standards of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastic Economy Initiative. Where I live, as I understand it, we’re recycling plastics of types 1, 2, and 5. So, somehow we seem to be doing the impossible.

Second, in the part that has been highlighted by your link, they’re specifying type 5 plastic, not all plastics in general, and seem to be treating the matter like all plastics are type 5 plastic. The article should, properly, give us the breakouts of the different types by volume/weight and the effectiveness of the different methods. If 80% of plastic is types 1 and 2, and those are being recycled pretty effectively then the relevance of type 5 is pretty low.

Basically, I wouldn’t trust that Greenpeace is setting proper criteria, based on the first issue. And I wouldn’t trust that the author of the article properly understood the topic when they were writing their overview (or they were successfully thrown off the straight and narrow by Greenpeace’s slant on the topic).

None of which is to imply that we are recycling a lot of material. I haven’t answered the questions that I just raised, either, I’m just pointing out that the cite doesn’t seem very trustworthy. I’ll try to track down something which does a better job of giving an overview of the subject.

The part I bolded is incorrect. Chemical and physical breakdown are a function of environment.

Solid HDPE “lumber” with UV stabilizers added. Trex-like, but no wood fiber.

How big is a particle considered to be microplastic? Industrial plants can be designed to control particulate exhaust, a chopping/pelletizing facility that controls microplastic emission should be possible.

Anything smaller than 5mm in diameter according to Wikipedia, but I have seen the term applied informally to “bits of plastic that are so small it’s not realistic to manually remove them from a beach or other place they don’t belong.”

However, the teeny-tiny definition fits best with the concerns that have been raised about plastics being breathed in or appearing in human placentas - the scenarios being raised by the person objecting to plastic recycling through art.