Most discarded dinnerware is made of polystyrene resin. It’s so cumbersome (bulky, but light enough to blow away) that no curbside pickups take it. We make use of 24 percent by burning the junk and converting its heat into electricity, but not for making new frat-party cups. illustration by Radio
The EPA’s census of US waste tallied 262.4 million tons of new junk in 2015—the weight of about 40 Pyramids of Giza, or 4.5 pounds per person per day. We can recycle about one-quarter of what we toss, but rising costs and trade issues mean some municipalities no longer bother. Even in places that still attempt to keep trash out of landfills and oceans, not all “recyclable” items end up renewed. Here’s how much of that stuff actually makes it back into circulation—and why it’s smart to use fewer disposables, no matter what bin you put them in.
Plastic plates and cups: 0%
Most discarded dinnerware is made of polystyrene resin. It’s so cumbersome (bulky, but light enough to blow away) that no curbside pickups take it. We make use of 24 percent by burning the junk and converting its heat into electricity, but not for making new frat-party cups.
Disposable diapers: 0%
Your baby’s butt might be adorable, but its environmental impact stinks. We burn some for energy, but dirty nappies contain too many kinds of materials—wood pulp, plastic, poop—for cost-effective recycling. Consider cloth so your kid can grow up on a cleaner planet.
Milk and water bottles: 30%
Humans buy a million plastic bottles a minute, and at least one-quarter never make their way into recycling bins—let alone back into consumer products. They do, however, wind up in our stomachs. Yup: Fish, mussels, and even sea salt can contain microplastics.
Tire recycling has increased ninefold since 1970, due in part to demand for things like asphalt and squishy playground mulch. Thank goodness, because piles of used treads can contaminate water, become habitats for disease-spreading insects, and even explode.
Aluminum cans and foil: 55%
Some soda cans inevitably wind up in the trash, but a cola vessel is about as salvageable as disposable objects get. About 70 percent of the cans come from recycled material, and almost 75 percent of all the aluminum ever put in circulation is still in use today.
You read it here first: Humans reuse or make energy from the majority of old newspapers. And, unlike plastic trash, these products aren’t a growing concern: The amount we make has fallen by more than half since 2000. Good news for trees; bad news for print journalism.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2019, Make It Last issue of Popular Science.
Erin Blakemore is a freelance reporter from Boulder, Colorado. In more than 15 years as a journalist, she’s covered everything from yoga teachers in cadaver labs to Cold War-era archeology to the mysterious uptick in diabetes cases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her work on science, health, and history has appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, The Atlantic, TIME, NPR, and more.