Plastic recycling labeled "a myth" as US rates sink to 5%
Recycling plastics is far from a straightforward process, but a new report has laid bare the grim reality of the situation. Conducted by Greenpeace, the study looked at activity at a broad range of processing facilities across the US and found that the vast majority of plastic waste generated by households wound up in landfill, with only around 5% actually recycled.
Called “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” the report released today is a follow-up to another carried out by Greenpeace that surveyed plastic recycling rates in the US. That 2020 report looked at the types of plastic accepted at around 370 recycling plants around the US, and found only some common plastics can legitimately be recycled, and that many may be collected as recycling from the curb but are sent to landfill or incinerated instead.
The new report again highlights the challenges in recycling plastic waste, which US households generated around 51 million tons of in 2021. The report points to the difficulty in collecting it all in the first place, correctly sorting the different types of it for recycling, and then the lackluster market for the recycled plastic products the process is able to produce.
These factors combine to make recycling a largely inconsequential course of action when it comes to reducing plastic waste, according to Greenpeace. It puts the recycling rate in the US at 9.5% in 2014, declining gradually to 8.7% in 2018, and to a new low of 5-6% percent in 2021. Of the estimated 51 million tons of waste generated by US homes last year, only 2.4 million tons was recycled.
“Single-use plastics are like trillions of pieces of confetti spewed from retail and fast food stores to over 330 million US residents across more than 3 million square miles each year,” said Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner. “It’s simply not possible to collect the vast quantity of these small pieces of plastic sold to US consumers annually. More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and, without drastic change, will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.”
As plastic waste continues to pollute the environment and scientists continue to uncover the extent of the disaster, many experts see tackling the problem at the source as the ideal approach. While bioplastics that degrade safely continue to show promise, reusable alternatives appear the best course of action. Describing the concept of plastics recycling as “a myth,” Greenpeace holds a similar view.
“Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades,” said Ramsden. “But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.”
The full report can be found online here (PDF).