Most Plastics in Our Recycling Bins Aren't Getting Recycled, New Report Finds

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
What goes into the recycling bin doesn't always get recycled. Fewer and fewer facilities are able to process anything other than #1 and #2 plastics, so why do all those other plastics have recycling symbols on them?. (Photo: Imran's Photography/Shutterstock)

Most recycling programs accept plastics labelled 1 through 7, but in the vast majority of cases, only #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) actually get recycled, a new report via Greenpeace has found. Examples of those types of "good" plastics include soda and water bottles, milk jugs and other soft-sided containers. The rest of the plastics dutifully placed in the recycling bin — including yogurt cups, plastic cutlery, to-go containers from restaurants, cosmetics packaging, and shipping materials — are likely getting incinerated or landfilled. And they may even be messing up the recycling sorting system on the way there.

The report looked at the data from 367 material recovery facilities (MRFs) in the United States. None of the facilities recycled coffee pods. So few were able to process plastics numbered 3 through 7 (due to the fact that they have "low-to-negative value") that labelling them as recyclable seems pointless.

It's the latest chapter in the unravelling of the American recycling system, which started when China stopped accepting U.S. recycling in 2018.

"This survey confirms what many news reports have indicated since China restricted plastic waste imports two years ago — that recycling facilities across the country are not able to sort, sell, and reprocess much of the plastic that companies produce," Jan Dell, independent engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, who led the survey of plastics acceptance policies told Greenpeace in a news release on the subject.

Why does the label says it's recyclable?

reduce trash and reuse
While some of these bottles can be recycled, plenty of the plastic we are dutifully recycling ends up in the landfill anyway. (Photo: Mr.TinDC [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

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.

"Instead of getting serious about moving away from single-use plastic, corporations are hiding behind the pretense that their throwaway packaging is recyclable. We know now that this is untrue. The jig is up," says Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar.

Greenpeace is asking the companies that have been labelling their products that contain #3 to #7 plastics as recyclable to remove that language from their packaging. If they don't, the environmental organization will file a Federal Trade Commission complaint against them for mislabeling.

Target, Nestlé, Danone, Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Aldi, SC Johnson and Unilever are some of the companies that Greenpeace is asking correct their labels.

But for the near future, there's no indication that these plastics will be able to be recycled anytime soon, since many of the countries we used to send our recycling to now refuse to accept it, as this video about our broken recycling system explains.

What you can do

I know I'll be checking my purchases more closely, as one of the strongest messages I can send to companies as a consumer is to refuse to buy non-recyclable plastics. And disposable plastics are definitely going to be an emergency-only situation from now on. (And if you're not as well-versed in your plastics, check out this guide to recycling labels so you know what you're buying before you buy it.)

I'll also be choosing items packaged in aluminum or glass containers over plastic — both materials are commonly accepted and recycled by waste programs. Paper might be a good choice too, though many paper packages are coated in a thin layer of plastic (including disposable coffee cups). Choosing paper bags for produce over plastic ones (#4) is an example of an easy switch — or bring your own lightweight cloth or net bags.

Saying "no thanks" to plastic silverware (typically #5 or #6), straws, bags, trays, or coffee cup lids (#6) whenever you can is another way to send a message.

Some of the same companies mentioned in the Greenpeace report are also experimenting with reusable packaging as part of their participation in the Loop program, and that's one creative way to solve the disposable plastic problem. Reuse is clearly part of the solution, both on the part of the large companies that are producing plastic waste that they know isn't recyclable and for individuals as well.

Reusing what plastic does come into your life (sandwich bags, bread bags, and plastic boxes and containers that can be repurposed) will give the plastic a longer useful life, even if it does end up in the landfill.

I think many of us were plastic-wary already — but this news is pushing me over the edge into serious no-plastic-proselytizing. I won't be able to stop thinking about how that disposable piece of whatever — reclosable bag, facial toner bottle, or candy box — will be polluting the planet for hundreds of years after I'm long gone. And that just feels wrong.