A new report from Greenpeace USA paints a dire picture for recycling efforts in the United States: They’ve fundamentally failed.
"The plastics and products industries have been promoting plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste since the early 1990s. Some 30 years later, the vast majority of U.S. plastic waste is still not recyclable,” the report reads. “The U.S. plastic recycling rate was estimated to have declined to about 5-6% in 2021, down from a high of 9.5% in 2014 and 8.7% in 2018, when the U.S. exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China and counted it as recycled even though much of it was burned or dumped."
In 2020, Greenpeace USA published a survey of plastic recycling in America that looked at about 370 material recovery facilities (MRFs) as part of a larger survey of America's capacity for domestic plastic waste reprocessing. One key result was that only some types of plastic containers could actually be recycled—specifically PET#1 and HDPE#2—but that MRFs regularly accepted other types of plastics, then disposed of them because there was no "end-market buyer." But it gets worse: PET#1 and HDPE#2 are hardly recyclable themselves, falling well below a 30 percent threshold established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy initiative.
Recycling plastic waste fails for a variety of reasons that Greenpeace boils down to: the impossibility of collection and sorting, the environmental toxicity, synthetic compositions and contamination, and a lack of economic feasibility.
There are thousands of different types of plastics with different compositions that cannot be recycled together, let alone sorted. Plastic recycling facilities are likely to catch on fire because plastic is flammable, and living near one poses a huge health risk—take Turkey, which became a new plastic waste export destination after China banned imports and saw an influx of EU waste expose workers and communities to new health risks. Plastics can also absorb toxic chemicals, further complicating recycling efforts and increasing their toxicity. On top of all this, recycled plastic costs more than new plastic because of the aforementioned factors encouraging companies to simply make more instead of pursuing alternatives.
Greenpeace points to a 2022 interview with Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability at the American Chemistry Council, where Cookson insists it "is a little bit more in its infancy compared to paper and aluminum and steel.” That’s an interesting way to talk about an industry that has existed for about three decades. But this sort of rhetoric, which Greenpeace dismisses as a delaying tactic, tracks with what recent investigations have found.
In 2020, NPR and PBS Frontline spent months looking into the recycling industry and found that "the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn't work—that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled—all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic." In 2022, The Atlantic ran an essay titled “Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work” which argued the industry was lying to the public about fundamental roadblocks to plastic waste recycling in part because of how profitable keeping up the facade was.
Scientists are rapidly making new breakthroughs on how to more easily recycle certain types of plastic or even mixed plastics that normally get sent to the landfill today, using a mixture of chemical and biological processes. Still, there is an even better path forward: abandoning the idea that single-use plastics can and should continue to be used.
"Will we allow companies to continue to promote the failed, toxic plastic recycling myth or will we demand a pivotal change that dramatically reduces the production of single-use plastics? Instead of continuing on this false path, companies in the U.S. and around the world must urgently phase out single-use plastics by replacing their packaging with reuse and refill systems and offering packaging-free products."