It has been two years since China has cracked down on importing recyclables, and it appears the U.S. has had to stockpile, incinerate, landfill, or divert most of its recyclables stream to other, less-apt countries (where it tends to just be dumped or burned). Combine that with the issue of contamination (which my city just reported went from 5 % to 10 % in recent years) and it seems grim for most plastics recycling. Would it be better to just toss them in the garbage?

Since most plastics are derived from crude oil (let's leave the bioplastics out of this) the idea is that burying plastics is a form of cheap carbon capture and storage. Granted, it's not capturing carbon from the air but at least it isn't adding any.

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    Welcome to Sustainability.SE! I think I see what you're asking, but perhaps a better way to phrase it is: "Is putting plastic in the garbage better than putting it in the recycling bin?" Your concern seems to be that what you put in the recycling bin doesn't actually get recycled, correct? Asking that directly may also be more clear.
    – LShaver
    Aug 23, 2019 at 19:58
  • @LShaver good call -- edited to be more clear. Aug 23, 2019 at 20:15
  • "Would it be better to just toss them in the garbage?" needs to be answered on a national scale (maximum) . Recycling possibilities differ between countries. Maybe emphasize US and add a tag?
    – user2451
    Aug 23, 2019 at 21:42

3 Answers 3


I'll grant this is just an opinion...

... But you are better off creating a waste stream that lends itself to recycling. Maybe they bury all the 1+2 recyclables (which are chemically the same, just different treatment). But they bury them together. So when the economics change, and it becomes worth digging up 1/2, it is economical to do so, because they are pre-separated.

OK, so China doesn't want it. That may create new opportunities for someone else to say "Hey, I can do something with all that 1+2!" That opportunity will only arise if there is already a stream of pre-separated 1+2. If we all throw in the towel and stop recycling, and then somebody finds a process, and then they try to get all the apparatus of recycling spun up again (get those blue bins out there, get the double trucks, get the extra warehouses, and convince everyone to recycle again) ... well, as you can see, that'll never happen. So the opportunity won't either.

It's like when the community says "Oh hey, let's rip up the old railroad track and build houses on it" then 5 years later the community goes "Traffic sucks. Let's build light rail." Yeah, ummmm...

  • Interesting idea, but I don't think the economics of recycling plastic are ever likely to make pulling it from a landfill a viable option. There seems to be an endless supply of it in the waste stream...
    – LShaver
    Sep 6, 2019 at 14:25

Addressing the last paragraph of the question:

No, this is not carbon capture according to the definition (this one from Wikipedia):

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) (or carbon capture and sequestration or carbon control and sequestration) is the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide.

It's creative bookkeeping ;-)

If you first extract oil from the ground, then spend energy making plastic, then bury part of that plastic, you still have contributed to CO2 in the atmosphere.
Maybe less then when you burn it, but calling this carbon storage and capture is greenwashing.

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    Aye, so it's strapping stilts to a donkey and calling it a stallion. But besides the name the main point of my question is: Is burying becoming 'better' than recycling? Aug 23, 2019 at 19:36
  • CCS might be better renamed CO2CS if it only applies to carbon dioxide rather than other forms of carbon. But anyway, any method of storing carbon, in any form, underground, achieves the same objective as CCS. So it would be a good thing and is not just creative bookkeeping.
    – Tim Cooper
    May 4, 2023 at 5:46

The problem with recycling is that currently (in the UK at least) it is not very efficient because usually we make very different items from what is provided using a lot of energy in the process - a plastic bottle is turned into a fleece jacket for example. The plastic bottle should not have existed in the first place because it was designed for one time use. The bottle should be washed by us and then reused by us over many years. Our furniture should last centuries, our clothes a lifetime. This would save carbon in the atmosphere.

Th problem with landfill is that it creates contaminated land. If we separated our waste that we cannot recycle and landfilled in separation we have a plastic site, food waste site, battery site, we could better manage those different lands in the future and we would have less toxic land.

The polluter should pay, this is the main problem and this would properly incentivise reuse and products that last and are recyclable. That I think could be achieved by litigation based on probable impact in the future (caveat; I am not a lawyer!)

But to answer your qestion we would need to know what happens to your recycling and what happens to your garbage? Here in my town we burn most of the garbage (creating more carbon in the atmosphere). Also we would need an answer as to what is worse, more carbon in the atmosphere or toxic land and seas!

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