What Happens to All That Plastic?

by |January 31, 2012

Photo credit: Ars Electronica

What would modern life be like without plastic?  According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, global plastic consumption has gone from 5.5 million tons in the 1950s to 110 million tons in 2009.  Where does all this plastic go when we’re done with it?

Today Americans discard about 33.6 million tons of plastic each year, but only 6.5 percent of it is recycled and 7.7 percent is combusted in waste-to-energy facilities, which create electricity or heat from garbage.

Photo credit: Samuel Mann

The rest ends up in landfills where it may take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and potentially leak pollutants into the soil and water. It’s estimated that there are also 100 millions tons of plastic debris floating around in the oceans threatening the health and safety of marine life.

Relatively little plastic is recycled because there are various types of plastic with different chemical compositions, and recycled plastics can be contaminated by the mixing of types. Plastic waste is also contaminated by materials such as paper and ink. Separating plastics from non-plastics in the recycling process, and different types of plastic from each other is labor-intensive and so far, there has been no easy solution.

Although the Society of Plastic Industries developed seven codes to distinguish types of plastic for recycling, in reality, only two—polyethylene terephthalate (PET, used for synthetic fibers and water bottles) and high density polyethylene (HDPE, used for jugs, bottle caps, water pipes)—are routinely recycled. In more and more cities like New York and Chicago, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic bags are now being recycled too. And increasingly the recycling industry’s use of near‐infrared spectroscopy, which can identify the chemical composition of plastics, is improving the efficiency and speed of plastic recycling.

Plastics that can be recycled are first sorted, shredded and rid of impurities like paper. The shreds are then melted and formed into pellets, which can be made into other products.

Plastic pellets, called nurdles. Photo credit: gentlemanrook

AERT in Arkansas, and Virginia-based Trex recycle polyethylene into outdoor decking material, fencing, and doors and windows. Coca Cola is recycling its PET bottles and opened the world’s largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in Spartanburg, SC to produce 100 million pounds of recycled plastic each year.

Plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas in a chemical process that combines smaller molecules into a large chainlike molecule, often with other substances added to give it particular qualities. Some, like phthalates and bisphenol A, can have harmful health effects. Plastic production is estimated to use 8 percent of yearly global oil production—both as the raw material and for energy in the manufacturing process. Because plastics embody energy from fossil fuels (and actually have a higher energy value than coal), leaving so much of it in landfills is not only an environmental hazard, it is a huge waste of a valuable resource that could be used to produce electricity, heat, or fuel.

The Plastics Division of the American Chemical Council asked the Earth Institute’s Earth Engineering Center to explore ways of recovering the energy inherent in non-recycled plastics. The resulting report, released in August 2011, determined that the amount of energy contained in the millions of tons of plastic in U.S. landfills is equivalent to 36.7 million tons of coal, 139 million barrels of oil, or 783 billion cubic feet of natural gas. If all this plastic were converted into liquid fuel, it could power all the cars in Los Angeles for a year. And the fact is, there are now technologies that can put all this waste plastic to good use.

The report examined three ways of utilizing non-recycled plastic for energy production: converting plastics directly into liquid fuel, using separated plastics as fuel in special types of power plants, and increasing the amount of garbage burned (currently only 10 percent) in waste-to-energy facilities.

Plastics can be converted into crude oil or other types of liquid fuel through pyrolysis, a high heat process. Agilyx, an Oregon-based company, produces processing systems that convert ground unsorted plastic of all types into synthetic crude oil (which can be refined into ultra-low sulfur diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel), as well as synthetic lubricants and greases, some of which can be made back into plastic. The units are designed to go where the plastic is: municipal waste facilities, waste management companies, and recyclers. The base system can convert 10 tons of plastic into 60 barrels of oil each day for about $60 a barrel; so with oil currently selling at around $99 a barrel, it’s definitely cost-effective.

Kevin DeWhitt, chief technology officer for Agilyx, explained that the byproducts of the process include ground-up solids—carbon, small amounts of metal and silicon—that can be sold to the steel, asphalt and cement industries; light gasses that Agilyx can burn and use as heat in its own process; and small amounts of chlorine from PVC (polyvinyl chloride plastic) that are scrubbed out in water and become nontoxic salt. The technology produces a tiny fraction of the emissions (carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides) allowed by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. A number of other companies in the U.S., Asia and Europe are also producing liquid fuel from plastic wastes.

Power plants specially designed to use plastics as fuel could theoretically produce 1.8 MWh of electricity per ton of waste plastic. Pennsylvania-based EcoClean Burners, Inc. burns plastic pellets (made from unrecycled waste plastic) to create energy for industrial boilers and companies that use steam during the manufacturing process. Based on technology developed in South Korea, the process produces no harmful emissions and uses fuel that is 30 percent cheaper than oil or natural gas.

A waste-to-energy facility in Baltimore. Photo credit: spike55151

Burning more garbage in waste-to-energy facilities would recover the energy inherent in plastics and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions since landfills emit methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide) as garbage decomposes. Unlike incinerators of the past, modern waste-to-energy facilities produce electricity and heat in boilers designed for complete combustion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said they produce electricity “with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” Burning the garbage now sitting in U.S. landfills in waste-to-energy facilities could theoretically yield 162 million MWh of electricity—enough to power 16.2 million households and reduce coal use by 108 million tons.


A 2009 United Nations Environmental Programme report on converting plastic waste into a resource also described the production of gaseous fuels, using high heat to decompose plastic waste, and solid fuel derived from a mixture of waste plastic, paper, and wood. The materials are first shredded, sorted then made into pellets. A number of companies in Japan are producing both solid and gaseous fuels. Currently, the United Nations Environmental Programme – International Environmental Technology Centre is conducting a pilot project in Cebu, Philippines, to convert waste polyethylene (packaging), polypropylene (plastic bags and packaging) and polystyrene (styrofoam, disposable cups,) mixed with waste paper and wood into solid fuel briquettes for use as a coal substitute and fuel to power cement kilns, power plants, industrial heat/steam boilers and stoves.

Also in the Philippines, another ingenious and simple, albeit small-scale, use for discarded plastic involves converting discarded plastic soda bottles into solar bottle bulbs to help light the dark homes of thousands of the poor. Developed by MIT students and inspired by the Appropriate Technology Collaborative, the “bulb” is made from a one-liter soda bottle that is filled with purified water and bleach, then inserted tightly into the roof of a home. The clear water disperses the sunlight and functions like an electric light bulb at a cost of 2 to 3 dollars.

The best solutions for our plastic problem are still to reduce our use of plastics, and to reuse and recycle whenever possible. More policies that ban plastic bag use, require bottle deposits and expand recycling would help. But millions of tons of plastic waste still sit in landfills around the country. What is needed to enable businesses like Agilyx to grow?

“What helps,” said DeWhitt, ”is to streamline the regulatory requirements so that it’s easier for innovative businesses to get off the ground, establish stable government policies to encourage long-term investment, and I’d like to see a production tax credit for this industry.” Technologies that can tap waste plastic as a resource provide multiple benefits: They help clean up the environment, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, decrease our use of non-renewable virgin resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and generate energy.

45 thoughts on “What Happens to All That Plastic?

  1. Angela Davis says:

    Fantastic, informative!! Thank you!

  2. Excellent report that covers nearly all bases. “Plastics”, in overall, is the most versatile and useful material invented by humans but this versatility is due to thousands of compounds of different compositions and properties. This is the main reason why recyclin of plastics to materials has been limited, as reported by Renee. What is the alternative? Recovery of the energy content of plastics, either in the form of syngas or “synoil” or as electrical and thermal energy. All of these routes require thermal treatment of plastic wastes. Well meaning people who oppose thermal treatment forget that “the gift of fire” marked the beginning of civiliazation and, to this day, is the mainstay of most material goods we enjoy.

  3. Donna says:

    It’s a shame we have become such a disposable society, whatever happened to using a drink bottle and filling it up with water, instead of wasting our earth’s precious resources using plastic water bottles?

  4. Trex says:

    Wow, thats really cool. Talk about reusing recycling a product. Im sure there are a number of cost efficient ways to reclaim the plastic, and turn it [reused plastic] into anything you want. I think that subsidies from the government that help these types of programs just end up hurting the program in the end. The subsidies keep the costs high. Thats what i think.

  5. Gertrude Jones, The Southern Company says:

    We are so used to taking and using plastic for granted without thinking of the detrimental effects that it has on society and the environment. It’s great to see that we have found ways to reduce pollution and reuse plastics. We know the many benefits of recycling something old to make something new, so we encourage the idea of reusing and recycling, instead of replacing.

  6. Peter Hunt says:

    Plastic can be recycled into diesel. It can be used to produce oil. It can be used to construct roads. Plastic is poison for our environment. It cannot be degraded by environment in natural way that’s by recycling the only way to get rid of it.

  7. Michael Rabb Newton says:

    We wants to dedicated ourselves to creating safe alternatives to plastic products. BPA-free and biodegradable plastics can only address some of the concern — and it’s far from a big-picture solution. Glass, stainless steel, bamboo, and other materials are just as effective and don’t have any of plastics’ inherent dangers. By selecting these alternatives, you’re making healthier choices for your family and our planet.

  8. Tim Dunn says:

    And what of the energy and CO2 costs of transporting plastic, which is more or less evenly distributed everywhere people are? I can’t think of any fuel that has to gathered in small increments from almost everywhere and taken to these plants. There was a huge study in Germany that was published last year, that looked at all of these issues, and they found that virgin plastic bags were superior to bioplastic and recycled plastic bags, in terms of environmental impact. With a little of an additive, plastic could be made biodegradable in landfills – which would provide methane. 2/3 of all garbage in the US goes into landfills which are tapped for methane, and enough methane is harvested to run tens of millions of automobiles, in the US alone.

  9. Mikel says:

    Great research and article. Glad to see you cover this topic. More people need to keep in mind the plastic waste they create once its ‘out of sight’.

  10. Brittany Heisenheffer says:

    Love this article. Great reality check for everyone.

  11. Adrien says:

    I think that anything that keeps waste out of landfill is a blessing!
    We are in the construction industry, and are faced with waste everyday. We take great pride in re purposing whatever we can.
    This is a great article, thank you!

  12. D Weiss says:

    A ban on plastic shopping bags is like “spitting in the wind”. Let’s all have a reality check folks! I am all for cleaning up our environment. However, singling out one source of plastic waste is absurd! All of you out there that are standing on your “soapboxes” calling for the ban of plastic shopping bags have no clue what effect that would have on the hard working Americans that produce these bags including the pyramid of suppliers and companies that support the manufacturers. The next time you are at the checkout line or strolling through the aisles of your local supermarket or convenience store, just stop for moment and take notice of all the items, wrapped, packed, stacked and labeled with plastic. I would have to make very an un-scientific guess that maybe 80% of all items you are putting into your “demonized” plastic shopping bags contain or are solely protected/packaged by plastic. This includes items packaged within a paper box. Think about it. There is FAR MORE processed plastic products going INTO your shopping bag, then there is contained within the shopping bag itself. Let’s not forget that we throw this all out into a big black heavy garbage bag. A plastic shopping bag ban is a total waste of time! The only sane option should be an enforceable plastic bag recycling program. ALL PLASTIC! Thank you for taking the time to read my post.

  13. Edgar L Allen says:

    Has anyone thought of taking all this plastic and dump it into a volcano? I believe the volcano heat will take care of all this plastic and we won’t have to look back and worry about where to put this plastic. At the same time we could be creating a new job and pay someone to take this plastic to a volcano. After all, the volcano put this substance back the earth.

  14. Jane says:

    I agree with Edgar Allen….Hm what if we do put all the plastic in a volcano? Will it really work? Is it safe enough? Is it realistic enough? What if people accidentally fall in there ?

  15. david gbadebo says:

    i think mixture of plastic solution with cement can be use for the flooring of a water area also,but their is need to find out more.

  16. Nicolas Morris says:

    Pull the other one
    its got bells on..
    I do not believe this HW about plastic burning clean of an instant,I see a bunch of greedy industrialists drooling at the profit lines available ,and their pet “scientists” calmly adjusting “allowable limits” as our atmosphere literally goes up in smoke”
    “Power plants specially designed to use plastics as fuel could theoretically produce 1.8 MWh of electricity per ton of waste plastic. Pennsylvania-based EcoClean Burners, Inc. burns plastic pellets (made from unrecycled waste plastic) to create energy for industrial boilers and companies that use steam during the manufacturing process. Based on technology developed in South Korea, the process produces no harmful emissions and uses fuel that is 30 percent cheaper than oil or natural gas.”
    this too me is the same ol BS you can eat petroleum jelly too, You will not die immediately, look at hydrogenated oils,we ate THAT crap for 40 years…
    Edgar Allen Poe? imagination runs deep!

  17. Lynda Blanton says:

    The real problem is that in over 2 years only around 20 people have bothered to comment on this article. Chances are that the number of people that actually care are in too short of numbers. I found it to be an excellent and informative look at a topic that sadly we will look back on and think why didn’t we do something about it then when we had the chance. But as long as everyone has their latest reality show, their newest app, their whatever it is to distract them from what’s really going on around them then the few that do care and their efforts won’t be enough. Our childrens children will be the ones to suffer but lets face it how many people would be willing to give up the comforts of today. And even if we would be willing there’s always some corporation or some other group who will make sure that the facts are skewed, that enough people are told to say otherwise or that its buried so deep that it will never be none until it is too late. Take climate change our government just cut from the budget millions of dollars that were the help things but instead big biz has opted to take their tax breaks with that money instead. Programs like the ones mentioned here are great but there is not enough money it to make anyone able to change things to better the environment. I don’t know who said it but they were so right… “Modern technology owes ecology an apology” Great articleand thank you for sharing it with us.

  18. Beston says:

    Kinds of plastic waste has been a problem in our dailylife. Thanks to the technology development, now we have the ability to reuse or transfer it other useful products for us. One of popular tech is pyrolysis. That will need all kinds of machines to make a pyrolysis plant to make it possible. It cost a lot, but it is still profitable. Hope gov can spend more money to support this type of enterprise.

  19. Tommy Keirnan says:

    I completely agree with Lynda. At the same time, I think that almost everyone agrees that it is a problem and will likely throw money at it. I know for a fact, that I’d like to work day in and day out in solving this huge problem but I don’t know where to start. If someone has enough money to fund an integral plastic waste management/recycling program please let me know.

  20. redollarblog says:

    The key to global recycling success are crowds: we have to introduce them that recycling make really sense. I often speak to people and the majority thinks that waste separation doesn’t pay off. They think that all the garbage goes together again, finally. That’s a big misconception. In the US, separated trash never goes together again. KEEP ON SEPARATING! AND DON’T BUY CANS AND PLASTIC BOTTLES FOR ONE TIME USE!!!

  21. Camila B. says:

    Plastic is forever! The plastic is something which should be recycled because it could lasts really forever. We should learn from the zero waste people how to reduce the plastic waste to minimum.

  22. Recycling plastic bags and film packaging is important due to the high cost of disposing of it and its impacts on the environment when it becomes litter.

  23. zoe says:

    I thought that this article was amazing, lost of verry important informatio. So from now on we should only reuse shopping bags. Now we just need to tell the rest of the world that

  24. sir,
    I am making a technique, in which waste plastic can be convert in use able products. according to my opinion we can be solve plastic pollution problem in the world. but i don’t know hot to come in form of world . This machine work in golden principal of waste plastic material. so what i can do? Near me has technique but not way but i know it is need of feature.

  25. Mike C says:

    We are taking that would be buried plastic and turning it into picnic tables, park benches, and landscaping timbers.. These natural products have been problem areas in the past as wood rots / decays, metal rusts, but since plastics lasts for a very long time, are impervious to moisture and insects, it is a 2-fold effect when these products are put to use in their new home. No more rot, no more landfill!

  26. Antonia@AOK says:

    > Why don’t homes/businesses/collection points have small machines that can melt/mould our plastics down to a bricks for collection by our local councils? That way it isn’t in a form that can blow away or go down the gutter and out to sea. It would also make it easier to store and easier for companies to reuse who have the machinery to recycle it.

  27. Jerry Stevenson says:

    Let’s take a look at bioplastics as an alternative to oil based products. Henry Ford used soy beans once in making automobile parts. We need to look out side of the box. We depend too much on oil which is not an unlimited resource.

  28. SaiefC says:

    Has anyone ever worked with reducing bio waste? What have you done? What did you face? How did it turn out?

    I want to learn more about any plastic containers (all types) that get generated from bio-laboratories and how they were recycled by following the current OSHA guidelines.

  29. This is very very informative . Gives a lot of clarity on what happens to plastic that is recycled and thrown into landfills . I applaud the companies that are converting the catastrophic amount of plastic waste on our planet. However, a few points that should emphasized:
    -plastic is mainly composed of petroleum
    -petroleum is harmful to the environment when extracted – i.e. Oil spills , fracking etc.
    -reducing and ultimately eliminating petroleum based plastics should be the goal
    – there are so many other sustainably sourced materials that can make plastic, focus on those
    -even if the plastic we waste gets converted to energy, how do we address the once again catastrophic amount that winds up in our oceans creating a plastic soup?
    I personally feel that the age of dirty energy such petroleum will soon come to an end and a brighter future of common sense forms of fuel will take over.

  30. Limengyao says:

    A meaningful article. Waste plastic can be seen everywhere, it pollutes our planet. Recycling plastic is the best solution.

  31. JD says:

    If only 6.5% of plastic is recycled, it follows that filling our recycling bins full of the stuff is a net negative to the environment if one considers (1) the fossil fuel burned picking it up and (2) the energy need to convert the 6.5% discarded plastic that is actually recycled into something useful. Public policy focuses way too much on recycle, when the focus should be reduce. Make recycling pick-ups once or twice a month only for only cans and paper to save the useless burning of gasoline, and put plastic and glass directly into landfill where almost all of it ends up anyway. Consider a tax incentives so packaging companies will use more environmentally sound materials than non-biodegradable plastics.

  32. Lori says:

    It seems the “obvious ” answer is too scary.
    The truth is every Gov does projections on pop growth, education needs, roads traffic, and recycling. So how long can we sustain this Earth with all this garbage and low recycling abilities….? A few decades, a hundred years? Apparently the Governments know something is going to happen in the next 50 years that makes RECYCLING MOOT. There is an Extinction event that will occur that will make the need to recycle unnecessary. Our INFLATION for the last 35 years points to our Economics crashing and currency losing value in the same timr frame of under 50 years proves that THE GOVERNMENTS know something and have pushed prices up to get the most out of the Earth’s population while our money still buys things services ,slaves ect…
    QUESTION: what do you think will happen in the next 20 to 50 years?

  33. adrian mctiernan says:

    I lived in Leicester – there is a waste burning plant there which burns rubbish, and uses it to heat local nearby blocks of flats. Free heating for pensioners and so forth. I has been in operation for some 30 years, and is a really good idea. What about using this idea more widely?

  34. Jayman says:

    What about reducing the types of plastic allowed to be used for throw away packaging. Restricting packaging to, lets say 2 types that have good recyclable qualities, and would be easier to sort than 7. Making this cheap, easier to sort, raw material available for re-use would be more attractive for companies who manufacture packaging, and for the companies who buy it.

  35. A. Omoose says:

    I walk the shores of the ocean and the marshes here in New England daily. The amounts of plastic trash I see is unsettling. I am glad to learn from this article that there are positive options being developed to process and use these ‘disposable’ plastic resources. Humanity – suicide by plastics – I hope not!

  36. S says:

    Guys thing about it animals are dying because of our world littering . When you look at your product that your buying please check if it has a recycling sign . We should all be recycling and not wasting. Think about it . We are united and we should know better .I am 11 year old and this is a topic we are learning about in School.

  37. Arnion Zhang says:

    When plastic was first invented, it was hailed as a miracle material. After all, it has thousands of uses from plastic bottles to the modern-day computers and smart phones. It is available at a cheap price and there are many different types of plastics with a variety of uses. However, plastic is effectively non-biodegradable which means that natural processes may take thousands of years to degrade plastic products.

    For me, I think pyrolysis of plastic to fuel oil is great manner to recycle waste plastic.

  38. Sunil Pawar says:

    How much oil may be get after 2 ton plastic melted.How can increase recovery of oil.
    Plse suggest

  39. Susie Environment says:

    Burning plastic produces toxic emissions. Some European countries claim they are very careful to control these emissions, but not everyone would be so careful. Before allowing waste to energy incineration, the US needs to have national incineration standards that are much stricter. If not, then poor people living near incinerators would incur the considerable health risk.

  40. A.H says:

    Shouldn’t manufacturers then limit the amount of plastic they produced?

  41. sophiepam says:

    I work in a big box store in Central Oregon and it amazes me how people rely on plastic bags as they are too cheap to buy biodegradable ones at a health store. I always ask and they love plastic for their garbage or pet waste. I will love the day when Oregon gets rid of plastic bags. They rip, they tear,the handles break. We have really thin ones that we use in nour store. I love the biodegradeable ones but are they really is the question. A lot of people do bring reuseable and I thank them. It is also easier.

  42. Eco Soph says:

    The world must scale down on renovations. This is unnecessary landfill.

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