Here’s where things get even more sobering: all that recycling you’re doing might not be helping as much as you think.
According to the EPA, US recycling processors deal with about 67 million metric tons of material every year. The recycling system has little federal oversight, which means that recycling processes and rules can be inconsistent throughout the country. Guidelines frequently change, which leaves lots of room for well-meaning citizens to screw up the process. For example, most of us remember being told for years that the best way to recycling a plastic bottle is by removing the cap and crushing the bottle. These days, that’s no longer true - we’re supposed to leave the cap on - and following the rules of the past can lead to those caps ending up in the stomach of an unwitting animal.
To make matters more complicated, countries that once bought US recyclables (yep, that’s a thing) are rolling out new restrictions and standards that lead to more rejected recycling - and those rejections often end up in landfills.
It’s worth remembering that plastic never goes away. It can be repurposed, but the closest it can get to being eliminated is being broken down into even smaller pieces of plastic, which can still be consumed by small animals. As much as we intend to do good by recycling, it can only create so many solutions to a problem that literally can’t be disposed of.