The truth about recycling plastic

Most of us believe recycling our plastic waste is a step towards saving the environment, but this could not be further from the truth.

While it might make you feel like an environmental hero, most of the plastic you carefully deposit in recycling bins does not get recycled. In 2018 alone more than 359 million tons of new plastic was produced globally. Less than 10% of it was recycled.

A whopping 91% of plastic is not recycled

The mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated to creating 8.3 billion metric tons. Much of that are disposable products that end up as trash.

Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons is plastic waste. Most single-use plastic––including water bottles––never gets recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that only 7% of all plastics end up being recycled. Furthermore, the EPA calculated that plastic may use up to 15% of our global carbon budget, emitting more than Germany or the UK.

The vast majority (79%) is accumulating in landfills and will be burned off increasing emissions and air pollution. Large quantities end up sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. Eventually, much of it ends up swimming in our oceans.

If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. It’s an unimaginable amount.

As our seas, river and streams become increasingly polluted with plastic, it’s easy to see why concerns about plastic is a growing global phenomenon.

Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, recently declared war on “single-use plastics that take five seconds to produce, are used for five minutes, then take 500 years to break down again.’”

At this rate, plastic bottles, yoghurt pots and disposable cups will be the chief archaeological relics of our age.

The reality of recycling plastic

The truth about which plastics can be recycled, how many times they can be recycled and what can be reused begins with the ubiquitous yet often misunderstood recycling symbols.

These chasing arrows on the bottom of plastic bottles or containers have become synonymous with an object’s recyclability–– fueling many misconceptions about recycling plastic. In truth, the small number (from one to seven) stamped in the symbol denotes the resin used to make the product, not the ability to recycle it. The identification codes are as follows:

Only two out of the seven can potentially be recycled. And shockingly, those two (Polypropylene, #5 and PET, #1) are rarely accepted at recyclers.

The difficulties of sorting and processing plastic

Recycling is the extraction of materials that can be recovered and reused for another purpose. For example, over 90% of metals that end up in waste get recycled. This is because metals are very easy to recycle from other materials and from one another. They have very different densities, different electrical and magnetic properties, and even different colors. This makes it very easy for either humans or machines to separate these metals from one another or from other materials.

Plastics are a whole other story. Most of it is incinerated or landfilled because of the massively complicated system of finding and sorting the different kinds. Plastics have overlapping densities over a very narrow range. There are more than 50 different types of plastics, making them more difficult to sort and reprocess than other recyclable materials.

Plastic is more difficult to sort and reprocess than other recyclable materials.

To further complicate things, a lot of plastic packaging consists of more than one polymer type. This makes it even more difficult to recycle. For instance, a bottle and a food tray can’t be recycled together because they melt at different temperatures. Problematic plastics also include black plastic food trays sold in many supermarkets; their color renders them invisible to sorting machines in recycling centres. In the UK, supermarket chains like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose, pledged to replace black plastic with recyclable materials in the next couple of years. While their commitment makes for great headlines, their actual plastic reduction is, thus far, insignificant. 

Plastic recycling is also managed on a local level, rather than perhaps benefitting from regulation at a national level. What each locality decides to recycle depends on the resources they have available. For example, in Greater Manchester in the UK they don’t have the technology available to sort between different types, so the only plastic that gets recycled is plastic bottles. 

The economics of recycling plastic

From a very basic environmental point of view, all materials are worth recycling, because this reduces the need for energy-intensive mining and smelting of virgin materials.

That makes a huge difference for some materials–– notably aluminium––but even recycling glass saves energy and, consequently, reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling can also provide a reliable, non-imported source of scarce resources such as the rare earth metals that are crucial parts of touchscreens and other high-tech devices.

However, the answer gets increasingly complicated when we consider economics. Plastic drives oil demand growth and remains a large part of big oil company profits. As oil prices fluctuate, so too does the price of plastic. When those markets are depressed, virgin plastic becomes far cheaper to buy than recycled plastic.

In addition, unlike metal or glass, which can be perpetually recycled, many plastic products degrade each time they’re processed, making them progressively less valuable. Recycle for Greater Manchester, part of England’s largest Waste Disposal Authority, says it focuses on plastic bottles as they are in demand by manufacturers that make new products, whereas there is a low demand for plastics like yoghurt pots, margarine tubs, and plastic trays.

The economics of recycling plastic

Moreover, materials like plastic bags, polystyrene packaging, and coffee cups can––in theory––be recycled, but for logistical and economic reasons, recycling them only makes sense when clean material is available in large quantity. Unfortunately, this is not the case for post-consumer household waste, so for most recycling plants, these materials are impractical to collect for recycling. If they are collected, the extra effort and expense required to separate them from general waste mean they often end up in overflowing quantities at the landfill.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that recycling rates have fallen in half of the local authorities in the UK because councils are increasingly throwing everything into the incinerators to save money.

From landfills to the ocean

Without a profitable market in which to sell, it’s simply not cost-effective for many recycling companies to process plastic, so many sell it to other countries at a loss.

In 2011, plastic trash was America’s primary export to China. In 2016, the world shipped 7.13 million tonnes of plastic to China. In total, about 45% of global plastic waste has ended up in China during the last 25 years. 

In countries like India, waste pickers sort through the trash to find the pieces that are most valuable––thicker plastics and metals. The remainder becomes landfilled or is incinerated, creating a health crisis for communities. Local waterways act like conveyor belts, sending plastic straight out to sea.

Eight million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Countries like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam contribute to 60% of ocean plastic due to mismanaged landfills.

Eight million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year.

A worldwide effort

On 1 January 2018, China finally banned the import of plastic waste, across 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste. The ban was hailed as a big win for global green efforts by environmentalists, who said it would not only clean up China but also force other countries to better manage their own trash.

Since then, the EU launched a plastic strategy which aimed to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. They’ve also targeted plastic bottles specifically, calling for 90% of them to be recyclable by 2025. As of October 1st, 2020,  it’s illegal in the UK to sell or supply plastic straws. These actions show promise of moving in the right direction, however, fall short of being a viable source of change in plastic consumption.  

In the long term, recycling is one way to deal with the plague of waste we have already created but not a viable solution for the future. The problem must be solved at its source. We must bear the responsibility of cutting waste generation through sustainable practices, from our individual consumer choices to addressing the demand for single-use plastics created by corporations. 

The arrival of new, biodegradable materials on the market developed from natural sources are slowly shifting the focus away from petroleum-based plastic. While some plastic products that claimed to be compostable or biodegradable have proven to be no better for the environment, we must remain optimistic that more sustainable options are in the near future. 


Nearing the end of 2020, we are hopefully in the midst of a paradigm shift in our consumption and waste patterns. Since a charge was introduced in 2015 for single-use plastic bag sales in the UK, their sales declined by more than 95%. Bringing a reusable mug to a cafe or Tupperware to your local takeaway has become second nature to many of us. This proves we can accelerate change on an individual level and that we value our planet more than sheer convenience. 

Meanwhile, to reduce the amount of plastic that we contribute to this colossal problem, pledge to #BeatPlasticPollution.


By Mitte Team — Jul 18, 2018
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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