Why We’re So Bad at Recycling Plastic

[intro ] Look around you — how much plastic is within reach? Plastic is literally everywhere. Seriously, scientists have found it in the
deepest depths of the ocean and on top of the most remote mountain peaks. Since the end of World War II, we’ve produced more than eight billion metric
tons of plastic. Of all that, only about 9% has ever been recycled. But it’s not just that humans are lazy or
bad. So let’s take a look at what makes something
that’s so vital to modern life also difficult to reuse. Think about a plastic water bottle, like the kind you might buy at an airport. It’s estimated that around the world, people buy a million plastic bottles every
minute. And it’s easy to think of a “plastic bottle”
as being made of a single thing — which is the first problem. We use the generic word plastic to refer to a bunch of chemicals that are
actually really different. Broadly speaking, plastics are polymers, which is a fancy way of saying they’re repeating
chains of molecules. During their formation, they can be processed into arbitrary shapes, which is what gives them such a wide range
of applications. Now, every plastic material falls into one
of two groups, thermoplastics and thermosets. The individual links in a thermoplastic are
held together by relatively weak chemical bonds. When the material is reheated, the molecules can break free from those bonds
and take on a new shape. In a thermoset, the polymer chains form intricate
networks with tight bonds. Heating these materials enough to break the
network destroys the plastic itself. So while thermosets can be very strong, they
can be difficult to recycle. There are a lot of different types of thermoplastics
in commercial products, but two of the ones most commonly seen in
the United States are known as PET and HDPE. Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is clear, can withstand moderate temperatures, and resists
cracking. High-density polyethylene, or HDPE, can survive more extreme temperatures but
generally lacks the transparency of PET. Both of these plastics are used for ordinary
bottles. But the trouble is, not all recycling centers
accept both of them. So you need to know what kind of plastic you’re
tossing out— and what types your local recycler accepts— in order to dispose of one correctly. Even then, you’re probably still doing it
wrong, because a single product often combines multiple
kinds of plastic. For instance, the twist cap on that bottle made of PET can
often be made of polypropylene, yet another type of plastic. Since most of us don’t carefully disassemble
our trash before getting rid of it, recycling plants need a way to separate all
the plastics they receive. And it can be critical for this separation
to be nearly perfect. For example, if the plastic PVC gets recycled, it can create acids that damage and discolor
PET beyond repair. And all it takes is a single PVC bottle in a pallet of 10,000 PET ones to ruin the
whole batch. To avoid these problems, recycling plants have a few ways to sort plastics. One approach is to use density — when immersed
in water, PET sinks while some other plastics float. Another option is heat. Different plastics become soft at different
temperatures, so precisely heating the mixture can set the
various materials apart. But since even a tiny bit of contamination
can do a lot of damage, recycling properly gets expensive— sometimes too expensive to be worthwhile. For instance, in New York City, every ton of recyclables costs $200 dollars
more to recycle than it would cost to toss in a landfill. But here’s the thing — even if we invented a process that magically and flawlessly sorted and processed every
kind of plastic, recycling it would still be hard. That’s because, unlike metal and glass, plastic degrades every time you recycle it. Aluminium, for instance, is an element, so no matter how many times you melt and rework
it, you’ve still just got aluminium atoms. On the other hand, at the microscopic level, plastics are really long chains of molecules. For example, HDPE, one of the plastics we
do recycle, can contain up to 100,000 linked ethylene
molecules. Every time a plastic is reheated to form it
into something new, some of those chains break, reducing the quality
of the material. To get around this, manufacturers add new
plastic to the mixture, so even recycling plastic requires new plastic. Another technique for prolonging the life
of plastic is down-cycling, which turns the material into increasingly
less sophisticated products. Plastic that starts as a water bottle might
then be turned into fleece for a jacket before ending its life as plastic lumber in
a deck. Eventually, even that isn’t enough, and whatever’s left gets burned for energy
or thrown into a landfill. So, in a sense, there is no such thing as
plastic recycling — every bit of plastic ever made will eventually
end up as waste. And in many cases, it’s not possible to do even one round of
recycling. That’s a big deal considering that, in 2009, about 4% of all the oil and gas extracted
worldwide was turned into plastic. And another 3 or 4% was used to create the
energy for that production. Now, people probably aren’t going to give
up plastic and there are some good reasons to keep it
around. It has huge benefits for health, accessibility,
and food safety. But we can be better about how we use it. And that means developing new recycling techniques
that prolong the life of the plastic we have, cutting out single-use products where we can, and being careful about which plastics we
use and how we combine them. To find out more about what happens behind
the scenes to the plastic you recycle, check out the episode after this. And as always, thanks for watching this episode
of SciShow. [ outro ]

100 thoughts on “Why We’re So Bad at Recycling Plastic”

  1. Why don’t we buy canned or boxed water?? I can get a La Croix in a can and a beer in a twist top aluminum “bottle.” This is the fault of manufacturers. We should tax companies to use greener packaging

  2. Micro-managing pollution is largely a waste in my opinion. Corporations needs to move away from plastic to make any real difference.

  3. “Look around you. How much plastic is in reach?”
    Literally on the toilet next to my bath with loads of shampoo and soap bottles

  4. We need an international standard of plastic grades that must be followed across the world. Corporations must abide by them instead of freely doing what they want

  5. Hank Green you are awesome , I've been binge watching for about 2 weeks just love your show. Glad it is free. I do plan on joining in Jan. Keep up the good info I really have learned a lot. Thanks so much, I am grateful. You guys are super dooper!☺

  6. Some day we may be able to do this process more efficiently! Apparently a Swedish university is working breaking down plastics.

  7. The trick, I would expect, in the end is going to come down to returning it to petroleum, or something close to it, and making it all over again. I'm sure there are scientists exploring microbes to see if any of them secrete enzymes that might help with that process. With the right mix of enzymes, we might not need to sort them at all.

  8. The problem with this video is that it only addresses the most common for of recycling– little more than reforming it into something else, whatever takes the least effort and cost. However, the chemistry for breaking down plastic and converting it back into hydrocarbons that can be used to make new products is fairly well understood. The primary problem there is that it takes upfront money and effort to produce a sustainable and eco-friendly industrial-scale processing method, and no big company wants to foot the bill for it because they're all most concerned with short-term profit with nary a thought toward long-term consequence. The other big obstacle, and some may wish to don a tin foil hat for this, is that that oil companies make too much money off plastic production and see plastic digester systems that produce hydrocarbons as a threat to their profits.

  9. Here is an article about a research group in Sweden who have found a way to break down plastic to the molecular level so it can be reused.
    All plastic waste could become new, high-quality plastic through advanced steam cracking


  10. I saw the thumbnail and first thought the bottles were Mars habitats and I would be learning about plastic recycling on other planets.

  11. My least favourite plastic is the wrap you get round stuff which is only there ton be thrown away. You get it round DVDs, food items, all sorts of stuff. I HATE it!!! I wish there was a way we could reduce the amount of that stuff we even go through…

  12. I hate biodegradable plastic bag, I actually waste more plastic bag ever since that been introduce since I used to save all the plastic bag for storage or use them for bagging trash.. but now, I just throw them away since their are practically useless…

  13. The Scandinavian countries have system for reusing old bottles. There is put into the bottles a recycling cost that you pay when you buy the product and return to you if you return the empty bottle to any store.

  14. Because plastic is a broad classification of products, not a product. Cardboard? Product. Aluminum cans? Product. Paper? Product. You would have to classify and advertise the classification. Color code them.

  15. This is not accurate information. We are in fact highly effective plastic recyclers. So much so, that moving away from plastics, would likely lead to more environmentally damaging alternatives. Sad to see science channels not giving the full perspective of this subject. Also, our understanding of recycling is fantasy. Recycling is arguably a scam.

  16. Companies responsible for producing and distributing most of these plastic-packaged products should re-think and re-develop how they package their products so that they are reusable or at least more easily recycable eg. avoid packaging with mixed plastic materials that are difficult to separate.

  17. If there's something I learned from living on this earth is that relying on people to do the right thing is a losing strategy. Nothing will change until we phase out plastic for biodegradables.

  18. Who is “we”? I understand this video uses “we” as in all of humanity, but a lot of these commenters don’t seem to understand that “we” in first-world countries are not the problem. Take a look at graphs and maps of high polluting regions, you’ll find that India, China and various countries in Africa produce the most waste with the lowest rates of recycling or concern for the environment at all. You and me as westerners don’t need to sacrifice our life, or feel ashamed, as “we” are not the problem.

  19. I suggest we forget about recycling plastics as they are and instead "digest" them back to their constituent monomers, which can then easily be separated in their pure forms and re-polymerized into fresh perfect plastics.

  20. What an outdated and negative title from Seeker. We might be on the cusp of becoming very good at recycling plastics:
    All plastic waste could be recycled into new plastic
    MIT alumna addresses the world’s mounting plastic waste problem
    P&G’s PureCycle removes all colors. odors, and contaminants from plastic discards

  21. Thank you for this video. It's kind of disturbing to see what we're doing to ourselves here, making more and more of these objects that don't break down into environmentally-friendly components and that we can't even recycle very well.

    Seems to me there's three possible solution paths:

    1. Invent better ways to recycle existing plastics. No idea how feasible this is.

    2. Invent more plastics that are biodegradable. This seems a bit like Sisyphus pushing that rock uphill. We need plastics that stay strong and clean while we use them, but then degrade neatly into mulch when we don't need them anymore. But there are a lot of really smart scientists out there. Maybe they can solve this problem.

    3. Start burning all our plastics in plasma arc recycling plants, while turning the waste gases into feedstock for fuel and more plastics. This seems like the most immediately feasible solution to me, but it would require massive investment and roll-out of what is still a relatively unproven technology.

  22. New motto for plastics.

    Reduce, recycle, burn it!.

    Dont pollute, just burn the stuff. Yes its "harmful" now but its easier to design clean burning plastics than ones which biodegrade or are recycleable.

  23. It will always be financially cheaper to just toss plastic. We don't recycle to save money, do we? We do it to reduce plastic pollution until we have figured out plastic eating microbes.

  24. There is just a lot of dishonesty in the discussion of these subjects. Plastic is infinitely recyclable. As he explained, the basic molecular structure of plastics are hydrocarbons such as ethylene, and they revert to these basic hydrocarbons when heated in an inert environment.
    We can make all grades of automotive fuel from discarded plastic. This process is considered expensive only because the environmental costs are not priced in. If manufactured goods have an environmental surcharge priced in, the funds can be used to subsidize recycling.
    If we don't do this, We will have to pay for the cleanup at some point, at a much higher cost.

  25. To solved this completely Company need to stop making plastic. Otherwise people will keep treating it as trash. For me I could care less. Unless they stop I’ll keep throwing them away.

  26. Im just usin as less as possible plastic. I know recycling isnt makin much of a difference in terms of helpin the environment. So far I switched to bar shampoo, conditioner, soap, body wash, etc. Theyre just as good and last sooo much longer. It might not make a big difference but it does make a difference in my life.😊

  27. I wish the US had a recycling program and mindset like most of Japan does. If we could get that set up, and maybe standardize plastics and recycling progressions, we could do a whole lot to clean this place up

  28. I tried to recycle items, but the guidelines were so vague I didn't know what was allowed and not allowed. So, I just threw everything in the trash. I wanted to help, but not enough information available.

  29. I have significantly cut my plastic use by making my own oat milk:

    For 1 litre: one mug (mine's about 300ml) of rolled oats, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 2 tablespoons of sugar or 1 tablespoon of stevia, 4 mugs of water.
    Combine all ingredients and blend in a high speed blender (mine's 1,200w) for 30 seconds.
    Filter through an old t-shirt (that material density seems perfect. Only through one layer, two layers is quite difficult)

    I also take my own containers to the deli.

  30. Well how about the fact that corporations make it even harder to recycle? There are literally recycling machines in my area that won't accept certain brands, even if it's the same type of plastic.

  31. How can you say that it cost 200$ to recycle than to just throw trash in a landfill??? Money is a made up concept by humans. The worth of land and space and air and clean water is more than that????? Humans make me sick.
    I hope we all die ASAP

  32. I'd say bury them. Have you seen the deepest crater made? Search up merny mine. Double the depth if you'd like then fill it and cover it. You have to compress/melt all the plastic into 1 piece for this to work. If we're alive as a species a few hundred years later, given we don't forget about it, we'll cut it up and send it to the sun. This can be done now but that's a whole other comment.

  33. Use all that plastic and compact it so trump and his servants can have that damn wall. There, problem solved. Your welcome. Lol

  34. Every year China sends the USA tons and tons of plastic in various shapes (Mardi Gras beads, Happy Meal toys, Barbi dolls, phone cases, salad tongs, etc.) which all end up in a landfill somewhere. Not sustainable.

  35. Humans have engineered methods to recycle metal, pulp and paper, glass, rubber, cotton, linen, water, compost, automotive oil, household chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs…even our ‘naturally occurring’ solid waste in our toilets as well. I am hoping that more funding is spent on researching better and more cost effective ways to recycle plastic because plastic waste is just as poisonous as electronic waste, radioactive waste, and medical waste. As a matter of fact…let us put more money into funding research to recycle all of our waste because eventually all that waste will be broken down by Mother Nature and be recycled back into our food and water. There is trace amounts of pollutants in our food supply anyways…so the threat is today’s problem, not tomorrow’s problem.

  36. When stores try to give you a plastic bag to put your item that is already packaged. I don't need a bag for like 2-3 things i can just carry, thanks.

  37. Glass. bottles.jars.drinks.windows.Cars even. re-use is easy. sterilisation is easy. recycling is easy. end is life disposal is easy. end of rant

  38. What if there was a re-using facility paired up with our recycling facilities that we send not bent up plastic materials like containers from flame broiler to be washed and re-used or sold?

  39. The one who spread plastics is cheaps is no others than The Oil companies itself!…. They know it's toxic and hard to get rid of but manage to lobbyists governments so they didn't have to pay the bills for health care or ordered to recycling them!

  40. Since plastic is a huge problem, there are campaigns promoting to fill the plastic bottles with pastic waste in your house (chips bags, candy wrappers, straws, etc) till it's full. Then you can use them to build houses.

  41. For anyone interested in recycling. There is a company, Plastics to oil – PTOI (their stock ticker) they actually can take any plastic, (yes any) and they re-refine it into cleaner Diesel fuel. They have “redbox” style boxes they can set up places and you can just throw any plastic item in and they pick it up occasionally and reuse it. It’s great

  42. I don't think plastic is the problem. Plastic is great for things that last, like my plastic phone case, my fan, part of my gun, etc. Plastic packaging and one time use products like disposable plates and cups are the problem.

  43. The problem is the countries like USA and India where people constantly buy BOTTLED WATER. Should fix the damn pipes and get water through that instead making more plastic garbage. Worst part is that most people toss the plastic into the nature. Even worse from that is the plastic faced whores like Kardashians.

  44. I try to avoid plastic everywhere I can, but it's impossible to avoid plastic completely.
    I really wish they'd go back to making appliances out of stamped metal. You might be able to recycle your water bottles, but there is no way you'll recycle durable plastic made for things like vacuum cleaners and blenders.

  45. I mean, I'm not the one wrapping cucumbers in plastic when they don't need it. Nor have I ever peeled an orange and then put it into a plastic container.

    Making compostable items that behave like plastic during their (single) use but then take maybe a few months to degrade in a industrial composting facility exist! My K-cups are completely recyclable and the "plastic" bags they come in are supposed to degrade much faster than plastic.

    I think recycling needs to stop being the answer and we need to start pressuring companies to stop using plastic so much. I can't buy chips without also buying plastic. I can't buy water, soda, milk, or juice without also buying plastic. I can't even get vegetables and fruits sometimes without buying plastic.

    It'd be much easier to just stop making SO MUCH plastic than it would be to keep doing things this way and try to clean up a mess that we don't need to be making!

    We're smarter than this, and we are smart enough to make single use items out of things besides plastic.

  46. I'd personally like to think that the trade offs of getting rid of plastic in all uses except science and permanent objects will be worth it in years to come. Absolutely ban every plastic not used super practically, unless you want to guarantee extinction. Dumb ignorant selfish idiots, who really think using plastic the way we do now will be A Okay.. Just wow, it's basically the modern day equivalent of using lead, asbestos, or radiation tainted materials but it's just so much easier to push off onto the environment.

  47. To Recap: If we don't separate the lids from the containers, the batch of melted down recycled plastic is ruined… and if we do remove the lids they end up choking some sea bird, too stupid to realise it isnt food.

    Either way we still get idiots protesting about climate change 🤔

  48. Why is this a concern so often put on the consumer? It's up to us to reduce externalities?
    We need to tax externalities and use those funds to fix those externalities. Let the experts and those with true power over it handle it. Don't let companies dump make problems that everyone has to deal with and then tell the consumer "you should buy less and support efforts to reduce the problem." Though that is good advice if it's impossible to make the companies deal with the problems they make

  49. Thank you for this video. I have a school project that is also about plastic recycling and this video definitely will help me out. Also thanks to include the source (not everyone does that). Great video 👍🏼

  50. It wouldn't be a bad idea to put some pressure for items of everyday use to be created from just one or maximum two different materials, so recycling them properly wouldn't be difficult. Right now for the sake of cool design many everyday items combine such an array of hard-to-separate materials that in the end it's almost impossible to recycle them. If an average person should care aout their impact on environment, shouldn't the companies too?

  51. So would the best thing to do is to build things with plastic lumber than with wood lumber. Then we are using less wood and save trees? 🤔

  52. Plastics should only be used for long term items like car parts or electronics, not temporary items like food packaging or cleaning product bottles or hair razors.

  53. Reduce, reduce, reduce. We need to change the system. Convincing everyone to change their ways is not going to work when you get what, trillions of dollars spent on marketing to get them to spend on wastes.

  54. Weird thought: What if we were to, instead of recycling plastic, which, let's face it, isn't a great process, we instead shredded it down into pellets, then dropped it down an abandoned oil well as fill "sand"?

    I know, it sounds stupid, but bear with me.

    Plastics are hydrocarbons. As they start breaking down in the sunlight, they off-gas lots of CO2 and other gasses. So ideally, you'd remove them from the carbon cycle completely, at least as much as possible. Hence, drop the unrecyclable stuff into a MUCH deeper hole than a landfill, and you can take it out of the cycle.

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