Greenpeace Report Confirms That Recycling Rate Is Getting Worse

So-called 'circular chemical recycling' remains a fantasy.

Maybe two of those bottles, the clear ones, will be recycled.
Maybe two of those bottles, the clear ones, will be recycled. This is all performative.

keep it 100/ Getty Images

Many North Americans dutifully separate out their plastics for recycling, put them in the blue bins, and watch them get taken away in the big green trucks paid for through their taxes in the fantasy world called recycling.

Two years ago, Starre Vartan reported on a Greenpeace study, "Circular Claims Fall Flat," which found that almost none of it actually gets recycled. Only plastics labeled as #1 (PET, the stuff water and pop bottles are made of) and #2 (HDPE, the heavy jugs) are recycled, and even those are done in relatively small quantities. Everything else, the #3 to #7 plastics, from yogurt cups to packaging materials to plastic spoons, is usually landfilled or burned. Vartan was disillusioned:

"This is clearly frustrating for those of us who have spent time and energy recycling these plastics and encouraging others to do so, assuming they were being made into new products. I feel misled by the many times I've heard from a company that their product is sustainable because they use packaging that's recyclable."

Only #1 and #2 are actually recycled at all, and not in significant quantities
Only #1 and #2 are actually recycled at all, and not in significant quantities.


Now Greenpeace has updated the study with "Circular Claims Fall Flat Again," and finds that the situation has gotten worse, not better, noting "that U.S. households generated an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, only 2.4 million tons of which was recycled." The report notes that only 5 to 6% of plastics were recycled in 2021, down from a high of 9.5% in 2014, although that was when plastic waste was being exported to China.

The report's title uses the words "circular claims" rather than "recycling claims" because circular is recycling 2.0, where plastics are theoretically broken down into usable chemicals before taking a round trip back into new plastic. I wrote previously in "The Plastics Industry Is Hijacking the Circular Economy":

"This sham of a circular economy is just another way to continue the status quo, with some more expensive reprocessing. It is the plastics industry telling governments, 'Don't worry, we will save recycling, just invest zillions in these new reprocessing technologies and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic.' It ensures that the consumer doesn't feel guilty buying the bottled water or the disposable coffee cup because, after all, hey, it's now circular." 

The new report confirms that these high-tech promises haven't worked. "In reality, so-called advanced or chemical recycling is not technically, environmentally, or economically viable. It has failed and will continue to fail for the same down-to-earth, real-world reasons that mechanical recycling of plastics has failed."

Greenpeace gives five reasons that recycling of any kind—mechanical or chemical—always fails:

  1. Plastic waste is difficult to collect. It starts at our homes, where we dump all of what we are told are recyclables into a bin, and then through our taxes we pay between $4.2 and 5.9 billion per year for someone to pick it up and take it to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where it is separated. Only the PET or HDPE have any value in the market, and it's not much. Many municipalities are giving up on separate recycling pickups because it costs too much. The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) estimates that only 5% of plastic is actually picked up and sent for recycling.
  2. Mixed plastic waste cannot be recycled together. It's often hard to tell them apart, and there are so many plastics with many different properties. Even just among PET, you have to separate the colored from the clear. Blow-molded bottles have to be treated differently than thermoformed PET cups and trays, so even with the #1 plastics, much of it cannot be recycled.
  3. Recycling is wasteful, polluting, and a fire hazard. When plastics are processed, it creates microplastics. These leak into the wastewater stream and eventually enter the environment.
  4. Recycled plastic often has huge toxicity risks. This is why recycled plastics rarely are used for food grade applications, one of the biggest consumers of plastic.
  5. Recycling is not economical. This is the big one. New plastic is cheaper, more consistent, and easier to work with. The plastic companies want to sell more new plastic and are opening vast new plants to make it. Meanwhile, the increase in the price of diesel fuel has made the transport of plastic waste even more expensive.

In a statement, Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner, comes to a very Treehugger conclusion:

“Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.”
Circular economy

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Ramsden is absolutely correct; we are never going to twist a linear system into a circular one. I noted previously: "Linear is more profitable because someone else, often the government, picks up part of the tab. Now, the drive-ins proliferate and take-out dominates. The entire industry is built on the linear economy. It exists entirely because of the development of single-use packaging where you buy, take away, and then throw away. It is the raison d'être."

It is a societal problem caused by what I have called the Convenience Industrial Complex, and it is not going away. Ramsden continues:

 “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. It’s simply not possible to collect the vast quantity of these small pieces of plastic sold to U.S. consumers annually. More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. 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.” 

The time for that drastic change is now. But for 60 years, we have been sold on this culture of convenience based on a linear economy. The fake circular economy would have you somehow magically pick everything up and turn it into new plastic, but it is a fantasy. If we want a truly circular economy, we should just ban single-use disposable plastics and be done with it.

View Article Sources
  1. "Report: Circular Claims Fall Flat." Greenpeace, 2020.

  2. "Circular Claims Fall Flat Again." Greenpeace, 2022.