The Recycling Paradox: Why Recycling Won't Fix the Plastic Problem

Recycling is just a band-aid on the overwhelming amount of plastic pollution in the environment. Learn why recycling isn't the cure-all for climate change...and why we should still do it.

Can we become more plastic than human?

After all, there is going to be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050 [1]. Every year, the world produces up to 400 million tons of plastic, a staggering amount that's nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Sadly, an estimated 59% of this ends up in landfills or unmanaged dumps, contributing to a growing environmental and health crisis [3]. While recycling can help slow down this process, it’s not the overall solution to our growing plastic problem. Using more sustainable options instead of plastic is the solution.

The Plastic Problem

Plastic is a material that's become synonymous with convenience and durability. However, those seemingly desirable qualities have left lasting, undesirable effects on human health and the environment. 

One of the most troubling aspects of plastic is its longevity. It's designed to resist decomposition, which means it can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. 

During this time, it can wreak havoc on our oceans, block drains, distribute toxic chemicals around the world, and even serve as a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

Surprisingly, 40% of all plastics are discarded after just a single use, ending up in landfill sites or incinerators [2]. Through these processes, plastic chemicals are released into the atmosphere, pollute our water, and potentially impact our health. 

Why Is Plastic So Troublesome?

What makes plastic dangerous are the hundreds of harmful chemicals used to produce it [4]. At its core, plastic is a product derived from crude oil or natural gas, fossil fuels that are extracted from the earth. 

The rising demand for fossil fuels used in plastic manufacturing presents significant environmental hazards, including the risk of oil and chemical spills, air and water pollution, and the release of harmful greenhouse gasses. Just as we are trying to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the plastics industry is ramping up for more plastic production, ensuring that extraction, refining, and other polluting processes continue.

Fracking is one such method of extraction. This process involves injecting large volumes of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground, which can lead to contamination of groundwater, seismic activity, and significant depletion of fresh water resources. 

Additionally, the process of transforming these fossil fuel-based petrochemicals into plastic contributes to air pollution and can have detrimental effects on human health and wildlife.

Shocking Products Made with the Same Chemicals as Plastic

The same harmful chemicals used to make plastic are essentially everywhere. These chemicals make for versatile materials and substances that are used in a wide array of products, many of which might surprise you. 

Chemicals used to make plastic are not just in your shopping bags or water bottles. They’re present in food can liners, fragrances, printer ink, cookware, clothing, and many other everyday items.

This widespread use of chemicals used to make plastic underscores the importance of understanding the life cycle of certain products. From there, we must find ways to reduce the use of these products in our everyday lives. With our daily changes, we can hope to spark change on a larger scale, influencing the manufacturing of plastics and personal care products that contain harmful chemicals. 

The Environmental Impacts of Plastic

In today’s fast-paced world, one thing remains constant – plastic. It takes hundreds of years for plastic to decompose, and during this time, it can cause significant damage. 

Marine life often mistakes plastic debris for food, leading to fatal consequences. If marine life doesn’t get caught in the plastic, they may consume it. In turn, we consume that plastic whenever we consume seafood. 

On land, plastic can alter habitats and disrupt natural processes [5]. Plastic debris can obstruct waterways, pollute soil, and even pose a direct threat to wildlife that may ingest these materials or become entangled in them. This direct impact affects the lives of millions of people and countless species.

As plastic breaks down, toxic chemicals are released into the soil, potentially polluting groundwater or surrounding surface water sources. This leaching presents a direct path for these harmful substances to enter our food chain and water supply, posing serious risks to human health.

One of the most abundant forms of plastic pollution is microplastics. These tiny particles are less than 5mm in size. They originate from a variety of sources, including larger plastic debris that breaks down, microbeads in personal care products, and synthetic fibers from clothing. 

Microplastics are created when larger plastic items, such as water bottles and shopping bags, break down under environmental stressors like sunlight and wave action. They also originate from the shedding of synthetic fibers every time we wash clothes made from materials like polyester and nylon.

Moreover, microplastics have the potential to adsorb other harmful substances like heavy metals and organic pollutants [6]. They contaminate our air, water, and food, posing potential health risks to humans and animals alike. 

The Health Impacts of Plastic

From packaging materials to household items, plastic is an integral part of our daily lives. However, some of the chemicals found in plastic products have been linked to a range of health issues. Among these are bisphenols, phthalates, and several other chemicals used in common items.

Bisphenols, such as bisphenol A (BPA), are used as chemical building blocks in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. These are found in reusable drink containers, food storage containers, and even in the lining of canned foods. 

BPA is known as an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with our body's hormone system. Repeated exposure to BPA has been linked to a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity [7].

Phthalates are another group of chemicals found in plastic. They are often added to make plastics soft and flexible and can be found in toys, vinyl flooring, and food packaging. Phthalates are also in fragrances used in personal care products like nail polish and shampoo, as well as cleaning products and scented candles. Repeated exposure to certain phthalates has been associated with reproductive issues, including reduced sperm count in men and early puberty in girls [8].

In addition to bisphenols and phthalates, thousands of other chemicals are associated with plastics and plastic production. Little to no health research exists on many of these chemicals, making it difficult to fully understand their potential health impacts.

As our reliance on plastic has grown, so too have concerns about the health effects of these chemicals. Over the past few decades, rates of infertility and various health conditions have risen [9][10]. While many factors contribute to these trends, research suggests that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals like those found in plastics may play a role.

It's important to remember that while plastic offers many conveniences, it also comes with potential risks. By being informed about the chemicals in our plastic products and making conscious choices to reduce our exposure, we can help protect our health and the health of future generations.

Recycling: The Conundrum in the Plastic Problem

Recycling is one of the most effective ways we can do our part to preserve the environment. It serves as a means of conserving resources, reducing landfill waste, saving energy, and providing raw materials for new products. 

However, it's important to recognize that recycling has its limitations. Not all plastic is recyclable, and the capacity of recycling facilities is often exceeded by the sheer volume of plastic production. 

Most virgin plastic goes directly to landfills or becomes litter. And the sad reality is that only 9% of plastic actually gets recycled [11].  

Understanding the limitations of recycling can empower us to make more conscious decisions about what we purchase. There is an order to the adage “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and the first step is to reduce. 

For example, we can choose products with less packaging and opt for reusable items instead of single-use ones. Depending on the product, you can also buy items made from recycled materials. These actions can help reduce the demand for new plastic production and lessen the burden on our recycling systems.

Potential Dangers of Recycled Materials

Recycling products can reduce landfill waste, but consuming products made with recycled materials could have their own potential risks. Scientists examining pellets made from recycled plastic found over 280 chemicals within the plastic’s composition [12]. 

In addition to being a big problem for the accumulation of known toxic chemicals, some chemicals found in recycled plastics cannot even be identified. This adds to the risk of repeated recycling and accumulation of these unknown substances. 

Buying recycled plastic products can be beneficial in limiting the production of virgin plastic in the future. Consider using recycled plastic for things you may not use often or don’t come into close contact with, such as sneakers or new shopping bags. However, try to stick with sustainable materials whenever possible.  

Emissions Caused by Recycling

Recycling is often hailed as a key solution to our planet's waste problem, but it's crucial to understand that the process isn't without its environmental implications. To recycle plastic, it’s first shredded into small pieces and then heated until it melts. 

During the melting process, harmful chemicals such as dioxins, furans, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can be released into the environment, particularly if the process is not carefully managed [13]. These chemicals can contaminate the air, soil, and water, posing risks to both human health and wildlife.

While recycling has its challenges and environmental implications, it remains a crucial part of our sustainability toolkit. We shouldn't view it as a silver bullet solution but rather as one piece of a larger puzzle. 

By continuing to innovate, improve efficiencies in the recycling process, and balance it with other waste management strategies, we can make a meaningful impact on our planet's health. Every small step towards better recycling practices is a step towards a more sustainable future.

What to Do About Plastic Use 

While you may have faced some daunting facts, there's hope. We have the power to mitigate the impacts of plastic pollution. 

By improving waste management systems, reducing our reliance on single-use plastics, and supporting innovative alternatives, we can make a difference. It's also important to educate others about the impacts of plastic pollution and encourage sustainable practices.

Furthermore, legislation can play a vital role in combating plastic pollution. Regulations that limit the production and consumption of single-use plastics, coupled with incentives for businesses to adopt eco-friendly practices, can drive significant change. 

Lastly, scientific research is crucial in understanding and addressing the implications of plastic pollution. Studies on the effects of microplastics on human health, wildlife, and ecosystems can guide policy decisions and inspire solutions. The fight against plastic pollution is a collective effort, and each step we take towards a more sustainable future counts.

Personalize Your Plastic Reduction Plan

In today's world, our exposure to harmful chemicals found in everyday items like plastics is alarmingly high. These chemicals, including BPA and phthalates, have been linked to a range of health issues, from hormonal disruptions to increased risk of certain cancers. Yet, many of us remain unaware of our personal exposure levels and the potential risks they pose to our health. This is where Million Marker's Detect & Detox Test Kit comes in.

The Detect & Detox Test Kit uses a simple mail-in urine test to provide a detailed, personalized report of your body's levels of these harmful chemicals. This information allows you to pinpoint your highest exposures, giving you the knowledge you need to take control of your health. 

The kit is not just a tool for detection but also a guide for detoxification, offering personalized recommendations on how to reduce your exposure and improve your overall health. By identifying the sources of your exposures, you can make informed decisions about the products you use and the lifestyle choices you make, ultimately reducing your chemical burden.