The world has a plastics problem, and the United States the top offender. While China is the world's largest plastic producer, a 2020 report found that the United States creates more plastic waste than other countries—42 million metric tons to be exact. India, China, and Brazil trailed behind.
In 2021, Americans only recycled about 5 percent of post-consumer plastic waste, a drop from 9.5 percent in 2014. But even at its peak, the United States struggled to properly recycle plastics. One article reported that most of the millions of tons of plastic the United States exported to China for recycling in 2015 was deemed non-recyclable–largely due to food contamination–and ended up in landfills in China. In 2017, China stopped accepting most plastic recycling and decided to only take the cleanest plastics. So, as the United States' and other countries' plastic waste ricochets across the world in a bid to be recycled, some companies and individuals are coming up with creative solutions to reduce plastic consumption and repurpose used plastics that could otherwise end up in landfills.
From dresses made out of recycled plastic bottles, playgrounds constructed from upcycled tires, and everything in between, here is how old plastics are finding new life.
One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure
Scavenging, or waste picking, is an income stream for over 15 million people globally, and about one percent of the urban population in developing countries uses scavenging as a means for primary income. Many search landfills for recyclable materials that they then sell to private recycling companies.
Here, people collect recyclable plastic material at the Al-Azraqain landfill on the outskirts of Sana'a, Yemen, on June 29, 2022.
After plastics are collected, or scavenged, from a landfill they are transported elsewhere in order to be recycled. One way they're conveyed is by horse and cart.
Pictured, is a horse-drawn cart loaded with recyclable plastic material at the garbage dumping site on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, on April 29, 2022.
About 91 percent of plastics are not recycled. While many plastics are not recyclable, other discarded plastics cannot be recycled because they are dirty––often contaminated with food particles.
One way to ensure that plastic goods are able to be processed in a recycling plant is by giving them a quick rinse. In this photo, a woman washes recyclable plastic material at a garbage dumping site on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, on April 28, 2022.
Plastics that are successfully recycled can find new life as other products. One example is this bucket, made from recycled plastic, at the Simpa factory in Dakar, Senegal, on June 14, 2022.
Along with recycling, cutting down on consumption of single-use plastics is an effective way to reduce plastic waste.
German manufacturing company, Igus, combines reducing and recycling to produce bikes made from recycled plastic. Pictured are two bicycles made from recycled plastic at the Igus booth at the Hanover Fair (Hannover Messe), in Hanover, Germany, on May 29, 2022.
Hal Far, Malta
For plastics that can't be recycled, repurposing is always an option.
A priest walks past a podium made out of recycled plastic bottles and lifejackets, where Pope Francis will meet with migrants at the "John XXIII Peace Lab” Centre for Migrants in Hal Far, Malta, on March 31, 2022.
Like many countries, Nigeria has a waste problem. To help combat the large amounts of used plastic that end up in landfills, Jumoke Olowookere, an artist and former teacher opened the Waste Museum to help educate people on how to sustainably generate wealth by recycling and repurposing their discarded plastics and other materials.
Jumoke Olowookere, founder of the Waste Museum, poses for a photograph at the museum in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria, on February 23, 2022.
Children repaint a playground made with repurposed tires at a school as part of a project lead by the Waste Museum, in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria, on February 22, 2022.
A woman knits a yarn bowl made from recycled plastic garbage that was collected from the Nile River in Giza, Egypt, on May 20, 2021.
Leonora Buenviaje, a seamstress and storeowner, displays a dress made of used sacks of rice and plastic bags, at her shop in Cainta, Rizal Province, Philippines, on March 3, 2022.
People look at a mock-up of Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice and prosperity for Javanese people, constructed from plastic waste collected from several rivers around the city, at the plastic museum in Gresik Regency, Surabaya, East Java Province, Indonesia, on September 28, 2021.
A visitor views a display made from recycled plastic bottles during the final day of the Chelsea Flower Show, in London, England, on September 26, 2021.
In Honduras, the Museum of National Identity (Museo Para La Identidad Nacional) is working on installations made from recycled plastic bottles as a way to encourage recycling in the community.
Here, a worker stands next to an installation made of plastic bottles in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on March 31, 2015.
New York City, United States
A model wears an outfit made from plastic water bottles recycled into fabric—part of an art project called "Flint Fit"—during a photo shoot in New York, New York, on April 5, 2018.
Two giant rabbits, made by the Cracking Art Group using recycled plastic, are displayed at the entrance of the Conrad Hotel in Brussels, Belgium, in February 2009.
São Paulo, Brazil
Giant illuminated plastic bottles, part of an art installation by Eduardo Srur meant to encourage people not to pollute rivers with recycled material, along the bank of the Tiete River, in downtown São Paulo, Brazil, in March 2008.