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Does recycling plastic help with climate change?

Plastic on a conveyor belt waits to be sorted at Rumpke's material recovery facility in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Does it really help climate change to recycle plastic? A listener in Evansville wanted to know. The answer is yes — if you’re doing it right.

Just about anything you buy new takes materials, energy and fuel to make, build and ship — which leads to more greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic is no different.

Allyson Mitchell is the executive director of Circular Indiana. She said reducing, reusing and recycling means less new plastic needs to be made from fossil fuels — and that’s good for the climate.

“So anytime you can use — extend the life of a material and a product, whether that's through reuse or recycling, you are going to have a positive impact or a reduction in the total impacts,” Mitchell said.

But that’s only if you recycle correctly.

“Only plastic one and two in the form of a bottle and jug is recyclable,” Mitchell said.

These are the only plastics that are in demand right now from manufacturers. So while your waste and recycling company might take other kinds of plastic, in the end, they’re unlikely to be made into something new.

The recycling process itself does use some energy. It takes fuel to transport that plastic where it needs to go, but Mitchell said recycling right is still a net positive.

Mitchell said it can be frustrating that so few other plastics — that aren't numbers one and two, bottles and jugs — get recycled. But she said things are changing rapidly and we're likely going to see more ways to use plastic that is currently being thrown away.

"Advances in chemical recycling are coming online quickly and scaling and improving dramatically from where they have been in recent years," she said.

An example is the company Brightmark in the northeast Indiana town of Ashley, which turns plastic pellets into diesel fuel.

READ MORE: Why do some people think that climate change isn’t happening?

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on statewide issues, including this series on climate change and solutions.

Though recycling plastic correctly does help reduce your “carbon footprint,” the impact on the climate is pretty small compared to actions like flying less or encouraging lawmakers to pass climate-friendly laws.

Circular Indiana has tips on how to recycle right.

Contact Rebecca at or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

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