Why Most Plastic Ends Up As Trash In A Landfill : Short Wave For many, recycling feels like a tangible way to personally combat climate change and to positively affect the environment. But after a years long investigation, NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan finds that reality is generally the opposite: Only a small fraction of plastic is ultimately recycled. Moreover, plastic production is on the rise.

Further reading:
- Recycling plastic is practically impossible — and the problem is getting worse
-
How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled

The Myth of Plastic Recycling

The Myth of Plastic Recycling

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Plastic covers the ground in a neighborhood in Indonesia. The country has battled the dumping of U.S. plastic recycling for years across its once pristine islands and waterways. Laura Sullivan/NPR hide caption

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Laura Sullivan/NPR

Plastic covers the ground in a neighborhood in Indonesia. The country has battled the dumping of U.S. plastic recycling for years across its once pristine islands and waterways.

Laura Sullivan/NPR

For many, recycling feels like a tangible way to personally combat climate change and to positively affect the environment. That's partially because of decades of public environmental campaigns, advertisements and even school education aimed at increasing recycling.

But the reality is that only a small fraction of plastic is ultimately recycled.

A recent Greenpeace report found that people may be putting plastic into recycling bins — but the amount of plastic transformed into new items in the U.S. is at a new roughly 5-6% low.

The plastic industry has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting the benefits of plastic, a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean. The problem has existed for decades. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled.

Meanwhile, plastic production is ramping up.

New plastic is cheap. It's made from oil and gas, and it's almost always less expensive and higher quality. The result is that plastic trash has few markets — a reality the public has not wanted to hear.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Abē Levine.