where does all the plastic go

Plastic is one of the most ubiquitous materials in our world. It’s used for packaging, consumer goods, and even in the production of cars and electronics. Unfortunately, plastic also has a significant impact on our environment. According to the National Geographic, only 9% of plastic is recycled. The rest of it is either incinerated, buried in landfills, or ends up in our oceans and waterways. But where does all that plastic go? Let’s explore.

The Fate of Plastic in Landfills

When plastic is buried in a landfill, it can take hundreds of years to decompose. As it breaks down, it releases toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater. Additionally, plastic buried in landfills can trap methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Some landfills attempt to capture methane gas and use it for energy, but this is not a perfect solution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only around 34% of landfills in the United States have gas collection systems in place.

Incineration of Plastic

When plastic is incinerated, it is burned at high temperatures. This process releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. While some modern incinerators have pollution control technologies in place, not all of them do. Incineration can also result in the release of toxic chemicals like dioxins and furans, which can have serious health effects on humans and wildlife.

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Plastic in Our Oceans and Waterways

Perhaps the most well-known fate of plastic is that it ends up in our oceans and waterways. According to a study published in the journal Science, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. This plastic can harm marine life, as animals can become entangled in it or mistake it for food. Additionally, plastic in the ocean can break down into smaller and smaller particles, known as microplastics, which can be ingested by fish and other marine life. These microplastics can then make their way up the food chain and end up in the seafood we eat.

While efforts are being made to clean up plastic in the ocean, it’s a daunting task. The ocean is vast, and plastic can travel long distances with ocean currents. Additionally, plastic that sinks to the bottom of the ocean can be difficult to remove.

What Can We Do About It?

The problem of plastic pollution can seem overwhelming, but there are steps we can take to address it. One of the most important things we can do is reduce our use of single-use plastics. This includes items like plastic bags, straws, and water bottles. Instead, opt for reusable alternatives like cloth bags, metal straws, and refillable water bottles.

Recycling is another important step. While only a small percentage of plastic is currently recycled, increasing our recycling rates can help keep plastic out of landfills and oceans. Some communities have implemented curbside recycling programs, while others have recycling centers where residents can drop off their recyclables.

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Finally, we can support policies that aim to reduce plastic pollution. This includes things like plastic bag bans and fees, which have been implemented in cities and countries around the world.


Plastic pollution is a complex problem with no easy solution. But by understanding where plastic goes and the impact it has on our environment, we can take steps to reduce our use of plastic and support policies that aim to address the problem. Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to make a difference.