Hey Wolfpack, today is Global Recycling Day, a perfect opportunity to dispel the myths and truths of recycling plastics — so we can take action to protect our planet. Combatting plastic pollution is an issue that hits close to home for us. For every order, we remove 1 pound of ocean-bound plastic and one pair of Wolven leggings is made from 27 recycled plastic bottles. Let’s dive into 5 myths about recycling plastics in this week’s Trash Talk.

Myth 1: Recycling Systems Are The Same Everywhere You Go 

First off, it’s essential to know that every neighborhood, city and state has different infrastructure for recycling, and this is important so you can make sure you are disposing of plastic properly.. For example, if there’s no collection program in place in your community for a specific kind of material, it simply won’t be recycled even if it's recyclable. Make sure to check your local jurisdictions for what recycling programs they have in place and make sure you act in accordance with them, as well as the manufacturers who have information on how to properly recycle their products. 

Here are a few sites where you can check your local recycling policies: 

Myth 2: All Plastics Can Be Recycled

What you might not know is that there are hundreds of different kinds of plastics, but there are 7 that are the most commonly used. In 1988 the Society of the Plastics Industry divided plastics into 7 different groups. This classification illustrates how each type differs in their forms and uses, as well as their recyclability and disposability. It’s important to note what kind of plastic you’re attempting to recycle in order to properly dispose of them. 

The most common plastic used in packaging and containers, group number 1, is PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) found for instance in water bottles and food jars. This kind of plastic is 100% recyclable — it’s what we make our clothing out of. These are the most widely recycled plastics in the world. The other group of easily recyclable plastic is HDPE (High Density Polyethylene), group 2 plastic polymers — which are stronger and thicker than PET, and often used in milk jugs, shampoo bottles, grocery bags and lids. These plastics are also recyclable at most centers worldwide. The other 5 groups of plastics are almost never recycled, typically not biodegradable and some even release hazardous chemicals into the environment. 

You might be wondering, how do I know which kind of plastic I’m using? All plastics have a recycling symbol somewhere that indicates which group they belong to. Note that the recycling symbol doesn't mean they’re actually recyclable. See below for a key on each group’s symbols (screenshot this for later). 


Myth 3: Everything Put In The Recycling Bin Gets Recycled 

Unfortunately, the truth is that despite your efforts to recycle plastic, only a small percentage of what is put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled. As of November 2022, the EPA estimated that only 9% of recycled plastics were actually recycled in the US, which has one of the most capable recycling infrastructures out there. Especially as the world continues to produce more and more plastic, this fraction gets smaller. 

There are a few reasons why our trash isn’t being recycled: 

  1.  It is expensive to collect, sort, and recycle old plastics, plus new plastics are cheaper to produce.
  2. The second is that recycling facilities are only capable of recycling a portion of the volume of plastics that they receive, and are often overwhelmed by plastic waste.
  3. Beyond this, there are loopholes that allow the US to be shady about how much we even recycle of that 9%.  In reality, America exports massive amounts of its waste plastics to other countries such as China, which had to ban the import of dirty foreign recyclables
  4. Additionally, most other recycled plastics are burned to generate electricity instead of actually being recycled. Both of these processes release massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions through shipping and incineration.  


Myth 4: Plastics Only End Up In Landfills 

This brings us to the 4th myth, that plastics only end up in landfills. According to the UN Environmental Programme, while 85% percent of plastics that aren’t recycled do end up in a landfill, unfortunately discarded plastics that aren’t recycled or are unable to be recycled, often end up elsewhere. The main alternative? Our rivers and oceans. According to UNESCO, the intergovernmental oceanic commissions, “Plastic waste makes up 80% of marine pollution, and around 8 to 10 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year.” They estimate that there are currently around 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics (plastic particles) in the ocean. This has detrimental effects on marine ecosystems, habitats and life as animals often ingest them or become entangled in them.

Myth 5: There Are Only Three R's to Recycling 

The concept of recycling plastic is super important, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end all solution to use something once and recycle it. Single-use plastics, even if recycled, are not sustainable. Our society lives in a model of constant consumption and disposal, and in order to become more sustainable we need to extend the timeline of disposability a lot longer, even if that’s with recycling. In our throwaway culture, we need to get more use out of items before we get rid of them, whether that’s plastic bottles, containers, food or clothes. 

Think back to the basics of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle  there are many steps to take before you recycle plastics. First, try to buy less "stuff" and use the things you buy as long as you can. Refuse, Resell and Repurpose. It’s important to utilize the many ways we have available to reduce plastic waste, and recycle when we’ve exhausted all our other options. 


The Takeaway

While recycling does *help* solve the problem of plastic pollution, there is simply too much plastic out there, and not enough infrastructure available to handle all of it. Essentially all plastic ever produced is still on the earth, and will be for hundreds of years, as it doesn’t biodegrade. The takeaway from these myths is simple: recycling is only as good as the infrastructure we have in place. So make sure that 1) If and when you’re recycling, you are doing it correctly, 2) Try to reuse or extend the life of the plastics you do come across and 3) Try to avoid using single-use plastics wherever you can, because ultimately to solve the issue of plastic pollution we must drastically reduce our production and consumption of it. 

What we do know is that there is so much innovation happening in our world to make these processes more efficient and sustainable. Even our r-PET fabric, a highly innovative textile made from recycled materials, isn’t perfectly sustainable or the silver bullet solution, but it’s a step in the right direction. There are always small ways to improve and do a little bit better for the environment, even if that’s just remembering to rinse out your containers before you put them in the blue bin. The more small (and big) steps we each take as individuals, communities, brands and industries, the greater and more impactful the collective change will be.  

Sources and Further Reading: 


Plastic Pollution in the Ocean: Data, Facts, Consequences

What are the Different Types of Plastic? 

California’s Plastic Problem and What We Can Do about It

Beat Plastic Pollution

About the Author: 

Ella Johnson is a Public Affairs student at UCLA, also studying Global Studies and Environmental Systems and Society. She is a longtime advocate for sustainable and ethical fashion and tries to live her life with the planet always in mind. She is an LA native, and loves the beach, yoga, the color orange and her dog, Kona.  

March 01, 2023