Charlotte Talks: Only 9 Percent Of Plastics Are Recycled. What's Happening With The Rest?

May 23, 2019

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Plastic marine debris on the southeastern coast of Singapore. A recent study found that only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled. Much of the rest winds up in the oceans.
Credit Flickr/vaidehi shah

The blessing and curse of plastic. A boon to us, but a major hazard for wildlife and nature requiring a global solution. We hear more.

We’ve all seen the pictures. A whale washed ashore with a stomach full of plastic. Turtles and birds bound by plastic netting. Remote beaches lined for miles with plastic bags, missing flip flops, old faded toys, straws, and bottle caps all the colors of the rainbow.

Plastics have been a boon for manufacturing and packaging and in many ways have made our lives more convenient. But they are polluting our environment and endangering wildlife. Among the worst offenders are single use plastics.

Marine debris collected on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean.
Credit Flickr/Holly Richards, USFWS

How does so much plastic, much of it recyclable, find its way into our waterways and the natural environment? Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Georgia, has traveled the world to uncover the scope of the problem and the reasons behind it. She found that only 9 percent of plastic ever produced has been recycled.

Since plastic waste comes from all over the world, it will require global cooperation to stem the plastic tide. We talk about that and get a glimpse of how we’re handling plastic pollution closer to home.


Jenna Jambeck, PhD, National Geographic fellow, associate professor in environmental engineering, University of Georgia

Laura Parker, staff writer for National Geographic. She’s reporting for their "Planet or Plastic" series, a multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis.

Jeff Smithberger, director of solid waste for Mecklenburg County