Why We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of Plastic Pollution and What We Can Do About It

Plastic Pollution has become one of the more pressing environmental issues, as rapidly increasing production of disposable plastics product overwhelms the world’s ability to properly collect discarded plastics.   SOURCE: National Geographic


What is Plastic Pollution?

Plastic Pollution is the accumulation of synthetic plastic products to the point that it creates problems for the health of wildlife and their habitats as well for human populations.


A Whopping 91 Percent of Plastic Isn’t Recycled”

                            – Source: National Geographic


Plastic is proving dangerous to our planet, health, and wildlife, and is a rapidly growing segment of municipal solid waste (MSW). While plastics are found in all major MSW categories, the containers and packaging category had the most plastic tonnage at over 14.5 million tons in 2018, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  In 2018, landfills received 27 million tons of plastic. This was 18.5 percent of all MSW landfilled.

SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)


We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of Plastic Pollution

Help end plastic pollution. Learn more from a presentation and discussion during a RecycleMore Board Meeting on September 8, 2022 with Martin Bourque, Executive Director at the Ecology Center, on the topic of “We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of Plastic Pollution”.

This presentation is an educational process of learning about the plastics food chains and highlighting of what is truly happening in recycling and bringing matters to light. The Ecology Center has been keeping an eye on and tracking of where plastics goes and what happens to it.

Plastic packaging has taken over the recycling process. Not everything is recyclable. There are only two types of plastics* that can be actively sorted and recycled.

*CalRecycle recently did a Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling Report. From this study, it was determined, what types of plastic were recyclable and not recyclable.

Only two types of plastics were identified as recyclable with a total of 15 items:

#1 – PET Plastics used for beverage containers such as water bottles.

#2 – HDPE Plastics used for containers such as milk, juice, laundry detergent and cleaners, etc. 


Where does the plastic go?

Martin shows the path of a shipment of mixed, low-grade, non-bottle, plastic container bales from the San Francisco Bay area to Guangdong Province, China, informal sector area for plastic processing. This was eventually brought to a recycling facility, which was an auction yard. Materials were auctioned off bale by bale and put on pickup trucks which were brought to smaller facilities and backyards of people where family businesses were then to sort the items. Because of the environmental degradation to such an extent of air and water pollution, these facilities were closed by the government.Processing then quickly moved to other countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, with no infrastructure to manage the materials properly.

These plastics are like sponges for toxins that can get into the soil of agriculture fields because of the informal nature of facilities with materials not contained and managed properly. This becomes organic pollutants, and now into the food systems, cause extreme health impacts and issues. And, when the rain pours, a lot of the materials get washed into the rivers which ends up in the oceans and causes more problems.


Markets for plastics?

Finding markets for exporting plastic waste is very challenging. If there are any markets, they are very limited and most likely are not regulated. This is a problem and will continue to cause harm to our planet, our health, and wildlife. The plastic industry is saying all the plastics is recyclable and to collect it all. Unfortunately, the burden is put on waste management agencies, waste haulers, and municipalities.

Mexico has become largely a market to take plastics, however, they most likely are making cement from these materials. When plastic (and other materials) are burned at unregulated cement kilns to make cement and cheap energy, it undercuts recycling efforts and worsens air quality and is like “moving the landfill from the ground to the sky”.  Most of the fuels used in the cement manufacturing process, emit planet-warming gases. This is a direct link, in addition of methane being produced, to climate change.


What to do with all the plastic?

The cost to bring plastic materials to the recycling centers, sort, and dispose of it can be expensive. Therefore, a decision needs to be made to only collect the items that are truly recyclable and marketable. This will also save on processing costs. Consumers need to be more educated on what is recyclable and what is not recyclable. For the plastic items that are not recyclable, they should go to the landfills rather then dumped and burned in other markets and nations.



Martin Bourque is the Executive Director at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California. Martin has led Ecology Center since 2000 and has leveraged local direct community service program to have state and national impact.  Under Martin’s leadership, he has led the Ecology Center to become a high impact engine for change with grassroots effort. The Ecology Center is a nonprofit organization that focuses on improving the health and the environmental impacts of urban residents. Their mission is to inspire and build sustainable, healthy, and just future for the East Bay area and beyond.

Martin can be reached at [email protected].



1) Video Presentation:  Video – Length 1:04:15.16 seconds



2) PPT Presentation



3) Other Articles

Recycling plastic is practically impossible, and the problem is getting worse (From NPR)

We never got good at recycling plastic. Some states are trying a new approach (From NPR)