Plastic packaging isn’t really ‘recyclable’ in the US, says Greenpeace report

We have known for years that plastic recycling rates are low, but they have managed to get even worse. The state of plastic recycling in the US is so abysmal that no plastic packaging can be considered recyclable, according to a new report released today by the environmental group Greenpeace.

Households in the US dumped 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, the new report says. Only 2.4 million tons of that plastic, or just under 5 percent, were recycled, compared to 8.7 percent in 2018.

With so little of the waste recycled, no type of plastic used in the US meets an industry-backed standard for what is considered “recyclable,” says Greenpeace.

With so little recycled waste, no type of plastic packaging used in the US meets an industry-backed standard for what is considered “recyclable,” says Greenpeace. For this report, they noted a benchmark set in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Global Commitment, an effort to get organizations around the world to reduce plastic waste. Big companies like Apple and Walmart have signed on to the pledge. For a type of plastic to be considered “recyclable in practice and at scale,” it must have a 30 percent recycling rate, says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

That’s a far cry from the amount of plastic that’s actually recycled in the US, even when looking specifically at the two most commonly recycled types of plastics, those used in beverage bottles and containers for common household items. Greenpeace estimates that US recycling facilities only have the capacity to process about 20.9 percent of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used to bottle beverages. For high-density polyethylene (HDPE), commonly made into milk jugs, shampoo and detergent bottles, the capacity drops to just 10.3 percent.

The findings build on a 2020 Greenpeace report that found only some PET and HDPE bottles can be legitimately labeled “recyclable” under the Federal Trade Commission’s environmental marketing “green guide.” That guidance says that companies should only make unqualified claims that their packaging or products are “recyclable” if 60 percent of their consumers have access to a recycling facility. In 2022, 60 percent of the US population did have access to municipal collection of PET and HDPE bottles and jugs for recycling, according to Greenpeace. But that percentage drops to 29 percent for the polypropylene commonly used in yogurt containers, 5 percent for plastic cups and 1 percent for plastic plates. And again, just because people have access to recycling facilities for PET and HDPE doesn’t mean those products are actually being recycled.

Greenpeace analyzed approximately 370 US material recovery facilities for its surveys. The organization’s findings build on previous research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that found the US plastic recycling rate had dropped to around 5 percent in 2019. Advocacy groups The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics similarly found that the recycling rate remained at about 5 percent in 2021.

The US, one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, has struggled to figure out what to do with its plastic waste since a monumental shift in 2018. That’s when China, where the US previously sent most of its called recyclable materials, decided to stop accepting most plastics.

Plastic pollution is a global problem that has persisted despite decades of marketing aimed at shifting responsibility onto consumers through recycling. Only 9 percent of all the world’s plastic waste had been recycled as of 2015, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Progress of science found. And because plastic degrades every time it’s reshredded, even devices made from recycled materials typically need to be reinforced with new plastics, creating more and more plastic waste.

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