You Only Think You're Recycling These Plastics

Here's the depressing results of a survey of all 367 residential recycling facilities in the U.S.
February 18, 2020, 5:46pm
Here's the depressing results of a survey of all 367 residential recycling facilities in the U.S.

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All those yogurt cups, plastic film, and takeout boxes we’re dutifully gathering every week because they're labeled as recyclable? A survey of every residential recycling facility in the U.S. found that they're mostly just getting trashed. And don’t even bother trying to save those plastic coffee pods.

Only your water and soda bottles, and the thicker plastic that serves as packaging used for shampoo bottles and laundry detergent jugs, are functionally recyclable, according to a report from Greenpeace. While it’s possible to recycle other types of plastic, there’s no market for it and local recycling facilities wind up trashing it.

“Most types of plastics are not recyclable in the United States, and in fact appear to be illegal to even refer to as recyclable,” Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar told VICE News. “Recycling isn’t broken, but plastic is choking it.”

The researchers surveyed all 367 residential recycling facilities in the U.S. In order for a product to be labeled as “recyclable,” 60 percent of the recycling facilities need to be able to recycle it, per Federal Trade Commission guidelines. In order to label a product as recyclable, the company that’s marketing it needs to prove to the government that it can be recycled. But most types of plastics aren’t getting recycled. The report claims that much of the plastic that’s labelled as recyclable is illegally labeled.

Less than 5% of plastic tubs get recycled into a new product, the survey found. Only 4% of recycling facilities will take your plastic bags. Only 14% of facilities will take clamshell takeout containers. Plastic coffee pods, often labeled as recyclable, aren’t accepted at any recycling facility in the U.S.

Chinese recycling facilities for years were processing the bulk of U.S. plastic scrap, even if much of it was actually getting burned or sent to landfills. In 2018, China stopped taking our trash, and, since then, local recycling facilities across the country have stopped accepting the more difficult-to-recycle types of plastic.

“China used to accept most of the #3, 4, 5, and 7 plastics, but it turns out that most of these plastics were not actually being recycled,” the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, which no longer accepts those types of plastics, notes on its website. “They were mostly being burned for fuel.”

Now, that type of plastic is clogging up U.S. recycling facilities. Many have either stopped accepting it altogether, and, when they do receive it, it gets trashed.

The report also notes that creating a viable market for recycled plastic is undermined by historically low plastics prices. It’s cheaper for most companies to buy higher-quality new plastics than it is to use recycled plastics.

The authors are calling for the accurate labelling of plastics products so that consumers can figure out what kinds of plastics they should be putting in the recycling bin. But it’s companies that produce the plastic that are ultimately responsible for the plastics crisis, according to the authors. Greenpeace is threatening to file federal complaints against companies that lie to the public about the recyclability of their products.

“The difficult truth is that most of the plastic that we buy is going to go to a landfill or an incinerator whether or not it goes in the recycling bin,” Hocevar said. “If it goes in the recycling bin, it’s going to reduce the effectiveness of our recycling system.”

Democrats in Congress, just last week, introduced legislation that would ban the use of several types of single use plastics — an effort to cut off plastics pollution at its source rather than promoting recycling after the fact. The new bill, the Break Free from Plastics Act, takes cues from the states, which, in the last several years, have begun to regulate plastics more aggressively: New York’s plastic bag ban, passed last year, will go into effect at the end of the month, and California and Maine have already instituted restrictions on the use of plastic straws and single-use plastics.

Cover: This Jan. 13, 2012 file photo shows cups of Chobani Yogurt at Chobani Greek Yogurt in South Edmeston, N.Y.(AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)