“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 published a study of plastic recycling in the US that looked at around 370 recycling facilities as part of a larger study of the country’s capacity to recycle household plastic waste.
One of the key findings was that only some types of plastic packaging could be recycled – in particular PET#1 and HDPE#2 – but recyclers regularly accepted other types of plastic and then disposed of them because there was no “end customer”.
Recycling of plastic waste does not take place for various reasons, which Greenpeace puts down to the impossibility of collection and sorting, environmental toxicity, synthetic composition, and pollution, as well as the lack of economic feasibility.
There are thousands of different types of plastic with different compositions that cannot be recycled together. Plastic recycling plants can catch fire because it is flammable and living near such plants is a huge health risk. Take for example Turkey, which has become a new destination for the export of plastic waste after China banned its import, and the influx of waste from the EU exposes workers and the public to new health risks. Plastics can also absorb toxic chemicals, making it even more difficult to recycle and increasing toxicity. In addition, recycled plastic is more expensive than new because the above factors encourage companies to simply produce more instead of looking for alternatives.
Greenpeace cites a 2022 interview with Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability at the American Chemistry Council, where he insists that plastic recycling “is in its infancy compared to paper, aluminum, and steel.”
In 2020, NPR and PBS Frontline spent months studying the recycling industry and found that “the industry sold the public the idea (which it knew wouldn’t work) that most plastic could be and will be recycled — and all this despite the fact that it earns billions of dollars selling new plastic to the world.” In 2022, The Atlantic published an essay titled “Plastic recycling doesn’t work and never will,” which argued that the industry lied to the public about the fundamental obstacles to recycling plastic waste in part because of how profitable it was to support this “facade”.
Scientists are rapidly making new discoveries about how to more easily recycle certain types of plastic, or even mixed plastics that are commonly sent to landfill today, using a mixture of chemical and biological processes. However, there is an even better way: to abandon the idea that single-use plastic can and should continue to be used.