Just 5% of plastic products are recycled in America and many common items just aren’t able to be recycled at all, according to a damning new study released Monday by Greenpeace USA.
The study estimates the U.S. produced about 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, but just 2.4 million tons of that was reprocessed.
The data compiled by Greenpeace is even more bleak than that released by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018. The government estimated at the time just 9% of all plastics had been recycled that year, with the remaining 91% winding up in landfills. (At the time much of the country’s plastic was shipped to China and considered recycled, even if it was dumped in a landfill anyways).
Shockingly, the research said no type of plastic packaging in America met the threshold needed to be considered “recyclable” promoted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative. The foundation says an item needs to meet a minimum 30% recycling rate to be considered as such: Plastic soda bottles, one of the most ubiquitous plastic products with the highest recycling rate, are only returned and reused at just over 20%. Plastic jugs fared even worse with just 10% recycling rates.
Every other type of plastic saw reprocessing rates of less than 5%, with many not recyclable at all.
“The data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable,” Lisa Ramsden, the senior plastics campaigner for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. “Single-use plastics are like trillions of pieces of confetti spewed from retail and fast food stores to over 330 million U.S. residents across more than 3 million square miles each year.”
The main issue is the sheer amount of plastic created and the thousands of different types that need to be separated and recycled in batches. Recyclers have long said doing so is inordinately expensive and plastic, unlike other products, can only be reused once or twice. Some types of plastic are too toxic to be recycled at all.
“It has always been exorbitantly expensive to collect, sort, truck, and safely reprocess plastic waste,” the study says.
Greenpeace went a step further to say the abysmal rates of plastic recycling are expected to fall even more as more plastic is produced.
“More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled,” Ramsden added. “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 to what can be done, Greenpeace USA said it’s time to recognize that: “After more than 30 years, it is time to accept that plastic recycling is a failed concept.”
“Viable alternatives to single-use plastics and packaging, such as reuse and refill systems, exist and need to be rapidly scaled up and invested in by the world’s biggest plastic polluters,” the group said. “These companies can no longer use recycling as a smokescreen to divert attention from the systemic changes that are needed.”
Some states have begun targeting fossil fuel companies amid the ongoing spread of plastic pollution. California’s attorney general in April opened a sweeping probe into the industry for what he called a “half-century campaign of deception” meant to urge Americans to use plastic with lies that it was easily recyclable.
A 2020 report by NPR and PBS’ “Frontline” found the plastics industry has known for decades recycling of their products would be too costly, but it spent millions of dollars a year encouraging Americans to do so anyways.
Some local jurisdictions have outlawed some single-use plastics, but the effort is an uphill battle. The U.S. remains the biggest producer of plastic waste in the world, generating more than 487 pounds per person each year.