Most plastic used by Americans is not recycled, a new Greenpeace report found. But that’s not for a complete lack of trying by the public—in many cases, even plastics thrown into recycling bins end up in a landfill.
“More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled,” Lisa Ramsden, senior plastic campaigner for Greenpeace USA, who helped author the report, tells NPR’s Laura Sullivan. “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.”
Of the 51 million tons of plastic produced by American households last year, only about 2.4 million tons were recycled, representing roughly five percent of the country’s heap of plastic waste, per the report.
Greenpeace claims recycling rates are so low that only two types of plastics can be labeled as “recyclable” under the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines: polyethylene terephthalate (PET) products labeled with number one (most water and soda bottles) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastics labeled with number 2 (shampoo bottles, laundry detergent containers and milk and juice jugs).
But the environmental nonprofit also looked at a different standard, which requires plastic to have a 30 percent recycling rate to be considered recyclable “in practice and at scale.” Under this definition, created by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy initiative, no group of plastics qualifies as recyclable. PET plastics have a recycling capacity of about 21 percent and HDPE plastics have a rate of about 10 percent.
Some facilities will accept plastics that they don’t actually reprocess. Fifty-two percent of recycling plants will take cups and containers labeled number five, but less than five percent of that type of plastic is actually made into something new. The rest is thrown into a landfill, per NPR.
Trent Carpenter, the general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, tells NPR the company tries to be transparent about which plastics it can accept. A few years ago, they told customers to only recycle soda bottles and jugs, but people still wanted to throw all plastic waste into their blue bins.
“We had to re-educate individuals that a great deal of that material is ending up in a landfill,” Carpenter tells NPR. “It's not going to a recycling facility and being recycled. It's going to a recycling facility and being landfilled someplace else because [you] can't do anything with that material.”
Carpenter tells the publication other companies are less forthcoming.
“Politically, it's easier to just say, ‘Gosh, we’re going to take everything and we think we can get it recycled,’ and then look the other way,” Carpenter tells NPR. “That's greenwashing at its best.”
Recycling plastics requires painstaking sorting: Thousands of types of plastics have their own melting points, dyes and colorants and must be separated. For example, PET bottles cannot be recycled with PET cups, trays or folding take-out containers, per the report. And green PET bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET bottles. This adds to the monetary cost of recycling.
“Plastic recycling is just not economical. It's often cheaper for companies to buy new plastic than it is to buy recycled plastic,” Ramsden tells ABC News’ Brad Mielke. “So, there's not a huge market for it.”
Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group, tells NPR the Greenpeace claims are “misleading, out of touch and misguided.” He adds that the industry believes it’s “on the cusp of a circularity revolution” with its new partnerships and scaled up methods for recycling.
But Ramsden tells Issam Ahmed of the Agence France-Presse that perhaps a better strategy is letting recycling go: Instead of dropping used plastic in a blue bin, it’s time to move toward refilling and reusing it, she says.
“This isn't actually a new concept—it's how the milkman used to be, it’s how Coca-Cola used to get its beverages to people,” she tells the publication. “They would drink their beverage, give the glass bottle back, and it would be sanitized and reused.”