Contrary to what climate activists have claimed for years, plastic recycling is polluting the water and air, a new study has found.
The peer-reviewed study led by Erina Brown, a plastics scientist at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, found that up to 13 percent of recycled plastics become microplastics, tiny particles smaller than five millimeters that pollute air and water, if wash water from recycling plants is not filtered. Brown and her team studied wastewater at a mixed plastics recycling facility in the United Kingdom and found it could produce up to 6.5 million pounds of microplastic per year.
"The findings are certainly alarming enough that it’s worthy of far more investigation and understanding of how widespread of an issue this might be," said Anja Brandon, associate director of U.S. plastics policy at Ocean Conservancy.
The new study adds to the growing skepticism of recycling's merit and feasibility in helping the environment. The Biden administration's environmental czars, meanwhile, have set their sights on other initiatives like phasing out gas stoves and shutting down coal and gas plants.
"We know where the pollution is coming ... and we could take measures to actually do something about it through permitting, through regulation, through all of those kind of rules we have available," Brandon said.
American households generated approximately 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, but only 2.4 million tons were recycled, according to a 2022 report. The process of picking up, sorting, and melting recyclable plastic is more expensive than making new plastic from oil and gas, so waste-management companies are forgoing the practice, meaning "much of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash," the Atlantic reported.
Researchers at the U.K. facility noted that the recycling plant was "relatively state-of-the-art" and installed a filtration system during the study. Yet, the microplastic pollutant estimates only dropped to 3 million pounds per year after they installed filters.
"It’s really important to consider that so many facilities worldwide might not have any filtration," said Judith Enck, a former senior Environmental Protection Agency official who was not involved in the study. "They might have some, but it’s not regulated at all. I don’t think we can filter our way out of this problem."