Why Recycle Plastics?

Businesswoman recycling water bottles
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One good reason to recycle plastic is that there is just so much of it.

Plastics are used to manufacture an incredible number of products we use every day, such as beverage and food containers, trash bags and grocery bags, cups and utensils, children's toys and diapers, and bottles for everything from mouthwash and shampoo to glass cleaner and dishwashing liquid. And that's not even counting all the plastic that goes into furniture, appliances, computers, and automobiles.

The Need 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 1 percent in 1960 to more than 13 percent in 2013, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As an example of how and why plastic waste is increasing, the International Bottled Water Association reports that the U.S. consumed 9.67 billion gallons of bottled water in 2012, compared to 9.1 billion gallons the year before. The United States is the world's leading consumer of bottled water. A good first step in reducing waste is switching to a reusable water bottle.

Natural Resources and Energy Conservation

Recycling plastics reduces the amount of energy and resources (such as water, petroleum, natural gas, and coal) needed to create plastic. According to a 2009 study by researchers Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley from the Pacific Institute of California, a pint-sized bottle of water requires about 2,000 times as much energy to produce as the same amount of tap water.

Recycling Plastics Saves Landfill Space

Recycling plastic products also keeps them out of landfills and allows the plastics to be reused in manufacturing new products. Recycling 1 ton of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space. And let's face it, a lot of plastic ends up directly in the environment, breaking down into tiny pieces, polluting our soil and water, and contributing to the ocean's Great Garbage Patches.

It's Relatively Easy

Recycling plastics has never been easier. Today, 80 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 postconsumer 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 2012, only 6.7 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.