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  • Stephanie Boyd

where does the plastic go?

Updated: Jun 12

"I've heard that only 5% of our plastic gets recycled. Is that true?"

This just might be the question that I hear most frequently lately. So I set out on a quest to figure out what happens to plastics in Williamstown. Many of us, bring our trash and recycling to the Williamstown transfer station. I know some of you get your trash and recyclables picked up but I won't be addressing that approach today. Its also important to note that this post doesn't discuss all the issues related with plastic, like air and water contamination, toxins, etc.

Williamstown Recycles!

At the transfer station, you'll find a paper/cardboard compactor. Compacting our paper and cardboard saves money on transportation costs. That paper gets shipped to Pittsfield where it is baled and then sent onto to other locations to be made into pulp and ultimately recycled paper goods.

The plastics take a different route. Our co-mingled metal, glass and plastics are trucked to Casella's Twin Bridges Materials Recovery Facility (MRF - pronounced 'murf'). The MRF is a relatively new facility built in 2019 and accepts co-mingled paper, glass, metal, plastics. A few weeks ago, I was able to visit the MRF with some other town officials.

What happens at the Material Recycling Facility

The equipment in the MRF along with assistance from workers separate the waste materials - paper, various types of plastic, metal and residuals. Residuals - are the waste materials that are not suitable for recycling or repurposing and will be sent to a landfill. The residuals represent about 15-18% of the materials received at the facility.

At the MRF, the paper and cardboard (sent by other towns, not Williamstown) are baled and sold to a paper facility to be pulped and then remade into recycled paper or cardboard. The glass is crushed and typically used as road fill material. There seemed to be a fair bit of other material mixed in with the glass.

The plastics were separated in to various types - rigid detergent bottles, No.1 PET, No. 2 HDPE, etc. PET and HDPE are the easiest plastics to recycle. The Casella team reported that the sorted plastics are sold to plastics recyclers in the US. At these recycling facilities (which I didn't visit), the plastic is cleaned, pelletized or melted prior to being incorporated or made into new products. Recycled plastic can be used to make bottles, detergent containers, mailers, diapers, shoes, clothing, backpacks, rugs, car parts, fishing nets, among many other products.

So, on the surface, anyway, it seems we are doing a pretty good job. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to really track where the plastics and other materials from Williamstown go after they leave the MRF. And Casella seemed reluctant to share the names of their recycling partners.

The Bigger Picture

I also consulted Our World in Data website to try to understand what is happening to plastic waste on a global and national scale. Plastic production has exploded from about 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 460 million tonnes in 2019! Of the global plastic produced over the period from 1950 to 2015:

  • 55% straight to landfill

  • 30% still in use

  • 8% incinerated

  • 6-7% recycled

Is our recycling rate improving?

Overall in the US, 4.5 % of our plastic waste is recycled, up from 2.4% in 2000, 19% is incinerated, up from 15.3% in 2000, 3.8% is mismanaged, down from 8%, and 73% is landfilled, down from 74%.

Annual plastic waste by disposal method, United States, 2000 to 2019

Mismanaged plastic waste includes materials burned in open pits, dumped into seas or

open waters, or disposed of in unsanitary landfills and dumpsites.

Who generates the most plastic waste?

Lets look deeper into our waste generation. Not surprisingly, the US ranks high on plastic use, compared to other countries/regions and 3/4 lb per person per day.

Plastic waste generation per capita, 2010

Daily plastic waste generation per person, measured in kilograms per person per day.

This measures the overall per capita plastic waste generation

rate prior to waste management, recycling or incineration.

Source: Our World in Data, waste per capita

Where does the plastic waste come from?

When we think of plastics and recycling, we most often focus on single-use packaging of consumer products. Packaging is a main source of plastic waste but plastics are used in many other industries. In the chart below, you can see that there other industrial sectors that generate significant amounts of plastic waste each year.

Annual global plastic waste generation by industrial sector, 2019

A lot of plastic packaging never gets to the MRF. Keep an eye on what you throw in your trash can - the plastic wrapping your new shirt came in, the paper bag holding your baguette with the clear plastic window, chip bags, disposable coffee cups.... It seems almost everything that we purchase contains some form of plastic. And a lot of it can't be recycled.

In addition, since we can only recycle plastic once or twice, it will eventually end up in a landfill (or worse).

Does our plastic waste stay in the US?

In general, higher per capita income countries, like USA and Canada and European countries tend to export less waste and have a lower percentage of mismanaged waste. A lot more data and visualization are available on the Our World in Data website. I encourage you to check it out.

So what does this mean to us?

From what I can see we are doing a somewhat reasonable job recycling our consumer packaging but still most plastic waste ends up being incinerated or landfilled. More troubling, plastic production is expected to continue to grow significantly over the coming years.

Even though, it doesn't appear that significant quantities of plastic waste get shipped from USA to those countries least able to manage it responsibly, American companies are increasing sales of plastic products in developing nations. What is our responsibility to the life cycle of those products? We should also find ways to prevent plastic waste being exported to those countries least able to manage it effectively.

NY state is currently considering a bill aimed at reducing the use of plastic packaging by 50% over 12 years, by requiring companies to find more sustainable options or pay a fee. Maine, California, Oregon and Colorado have already passed similar legislation, as have several provinces in Canada. Maybe, Massachusetts is next?

We need better labelling, less plastic packaging, fewer toxins in plastics. And we need more transparency on what happens with our waste and recyclables once we drop them off at the transfer station. Ask your representatives what they doing about the situation.

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06 jun
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Thanks for helping our community become more aware of this big problem! It would be good for people to know the reason plastic production is forecasted to triple by 2050 ( ) is that it will become the petrochemical industry’s main revenue source as the world stops using fossil fuels for heating, transportation, and electricity generation.

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