Bringing New Life to Plastics
Environment

Bringing New Life to Plastics

A look at how plastics are being reduced, reused, and recycled

Giant fish made with plastic bottles are exhibited at Botafogo beach, in Rio de Janeiro, on June 19, 2012
Giant fish made with plastic bottles are exhibited at Botafogo Beach, in Rio de Janeiro, June 2012. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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

Two men wearing black jackets and pants carrying red plastic bags search a landfill for recyclable plastics
A chestnut colored horse with a black mane stands outside of landfill carrying a cart filled with plastic bottles
A woman sits with her back facing the camera as she washes plastic waste outside a landfill in Dakar, Senegal
a purple plastic bucket tumbles as its being cooled at a factory line in Dakar, Senegal
Two bright orange bicycles with black wheels are photographed on astroturf at an exhibition in Hanover, Germany
a priest, captured mid-step, is seen blurred against a crisp backdrop of repurposed, blue plastic bottles
Jumoke Olowookere, a black woman wearing a white t-shirt, founder of the Waste Museum is photographed sitting on a painted tire
Children paint a pyramid of repurposed tires as part of a playground set up
An Egyption woman wearing a pink headscarf a blue surgical mask is seen knitting a colorful bowl out of yarn made form recycled plastics
A shopkeeper arranges a pink and green formal dress made out of fabric  from recycled bottles
a male and female bystander look at a mock-up of the Indonesian goddess, Sri, that had been constructed from repurposed plastic waste
A man with black hair wearing a blue surgical face mask looks at a sculpture made out of plastic bottles at he Chelsea Flower Show, in London, England
a museum worker, obscured by light, cleans next to an art installation made from repurposed, red, blue, and green bottles
A model, wearing a khaki colored sleeveless trench coat made from recycled plastics, and blue knee high socks, strikes a pose in a dance hall as part of an art installation
A woman on a bicycle wearing a gray jacket bikes past two giant bright orange plastic rabbits made from recycled materials
plastic bottles, illuminated by colorful lights, are photographed along the tiete river in brazil at night
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Two men wearing black jackets and pants carrying red plastic bags search a landfill for recyclable plastics A chestnut colored horse with a black mane stands outside of landfill carrying a cart filled with plastic bottles A woman sits with her back facing the camera as she washes plastic waste outside a landfill in Dakar, Senegal a purple plastic bucket tumbles as its being cooled at a factory line in Dakar, Senegal Two bright orange bicycles with black wheels are photographed on astroturf at an exhibition in Hanover, Germany a priest, captured mid-step, is seen blurred against a crisp backdrop of repurposed, blue plastic bottles Jumoke Olowookere, a black woman wearing a white t-shirt, founder of the Waste Museum is photographed sitting on a painted tire Children paint a pyramid of repurposed tires as part of a playground set up An Egyption woman wearing a pink headscarf a blue surgical mask is seen knitting a colorful bowl out of yarn made form recycled plastics A shopkeeper arranges a pink and green formal dress made out of fabric  from recycled bottles a male and female bystander look at a mock-up of the Indonesian goddess, Sri, that had been constructed from repurposed plastic waste A man with black hair wearing a blue surgical face mask looks at a sculpture made out of plastic bottles at he Chelsea Flower Show, in London, England a museum worker, obscured by light, cleans next to an art installation made from repurposed, red, blue, and green bottles A model, wearing a khaki colored sleeveless trench coat made from recycled plastics, and blue knee high socks, strikes a pose in a dance hall as part of an art installation A woman on a bicycle wearing a gray jacket bikes past two giant bright orange plastic rabbits made from recycled materials plastic bottles, illuminated by colorful lights, are photographed along the tiete river in brazil at night
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Caroline Kantis is a staff editor for Think Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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