Discarded plastic and the impact of recycling

Dear Tom,
I have heard that discarded plastic products are getting to be a major problem worldwide. Isn’t recycling taking care of the situation?
— Jason Cou, Chicago
Dear Jason,
It’s true: Plastic is proliferating. And the problem (yes, it’s a problem) is getting worse. Recycling rates remain low, especially in the United States. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the United States, and this compares unfavorably with China (25 percent of plastic is recycled there) and Europe (30 percent), but even those recycling numbers are disturbingly low. These figures come from a brand-new study, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” led by Roland Geyer of the University of California at Santa Barbara. It is unfortunate that most plastic products, such as packaging, are designed to be used once and then discarded.