Plastic Recycling in the US Is a Fantasy—'It Does Not Work'

Only 6% of plastics are actually recycled.

Heaps of plastic bottles piled up against the sky

Syed Mahabubul Kader / EyeEm / Getty Images

I am a firm believer that recycling is a scam perpetrated by big businesses on the citizens and municipalities of America. Now, a new report—"The Real Truth about the US Plastic Recycling Rate"—from Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup finds we can also call plastic recycling a fantasy: it barely happens.

The true recycling rate of plastics dropped to between 5% and 6% from a peak of a dismal 9.5% back in 2014—and that included plastic exported to China. This appears to only count the plastic waste that is actually picked up and doesn't include all the "leakage" of plastics to the ocean or on the ground somewhere, which according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, is 32% of all plastic.

Recycling is the industry's answer to the problem, but it is clearly not happening.

The recycling rate was always inflated because the industry evidently mixes in data from metals and paper products, which have a much higher recycling rate. The industry is promising to go "circular" with fancy chemical recycling technologies, but as we have noted before, the plastics industry hijacked the circular economy and chemical recycling is all talk and no recycling.

“There is no circular economy of plastics. Plastics and products companies co-opted the success of other material recycling and America’s desire to recycle to create the myth that plastic is recyclable,” said Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup.

EPA Data

EPA

The 6% recycling rate comes from an extrapolation of the last EPA data published in 2018 and the true rate may be even lower. The 6% rate also includes plastic waste that is exported and who knows where it actually goes; it may well end up in a landfill or an incinerator. That's why I believe the number is significantly worse than the 5% to 6% projections—leakage isn't accounted for and exported plastics count as recycling.

Dell tells Treehugger she agrees. "It is very difficult to quantify the additional losses from pollution or burning of plastic waste, so we didn’t include those factors in our estimates," says Dell.
"We did not want to exaggerate a low recycling estimate. There are several things that make the recycling rate worse." 

She adds that studies show “up to 31%” of European Union plastic waste exports become pollution in non-OECD countries, which would drop the rate a bit. But, "since we don’t want to exaggerate the dismal plastic recycling rate, we’d still round that to 5% to 6%."

The amount of plastic waste generated by Americans also keeps rising. It reached 218 pounds per person in 2018—a 263% increase from 1980 when it was 60 pounds per person. Plastic is essentially a solid fossil fuel and creating it releases 6 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) for every kilogram of plastic made, which is one of the reasons why environmentalists are trying to reduce its consumption. Recycling is the industry's answer to the problem, but it is clearly not happening.

It’s time to recognize the truth and accept what the credible facts and science tell us: plastic recycling is neither a safe nor realistic solution to reducing plastic waste and pollution in the United States.

“The plastics industry must stop lying to the public about plastics recycling. It does not work, it never will work, and no amount of false advertising will change that. Instead, we need consumer brand companies and governments to adopt policies that reduce the production, usage, and disposal of plastics,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former regional administrator of the EPA.

The report concluded by noting, "The estimated 5 to 6% U.S. domestic plastic recycling rate in 2021 should be a wake-up call to stop pretending that plastics recycling is a viable solution to plastic waste and pollution."

They recommend bans on single-use plastics and reusable container programs, along with the introduction of more water refilling stations. The report stated: "Cities and their water agencies benefit from installing water stations which offer a filling function in addition to a drinking fountain, providing residents with free sources of high-quality drinking water and leading to a reduction in plastic waste." We have called for this too, noting it's time to bring back the public water fountain.

plastic generation and recycling rate

EPA

The petrochemical industries and the bottlers have done such a job on us that we are buried in plastic waste. Author Elizabeth Royte wrote in Bottlemania about a Pepsi Cola vice president who told investors: “When we are done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.” They have pretty much succeeded to the point that many are convinced they cannot go anywhere without a cup or a bottle in their hand.

Meanwhile, the consumption of plastic goes up, the recycling rate goes down, and people continue to believe recycling is the most important thing they can do to save the world. We have to change these perceptions, change the culture, and give the last word to the report:

"It’s time to recognize the truth and accept what the credible facts and science tell us: plastic recycling is neither a safe nor realistic solution to reducing plastic waste and pollution in the United States."