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US Plastic Recycling Rate Drops To Just 5%

by Rudy Sanchez on 05/05/2022 | 3 Minute Read

According to a study released by non-profit The Last Beach Cleanup and grassroots organization Beyond Plastics called “The Real Truth About the US Plastics Recycling Rate,” the rate at which plastic now gets recycled in the United States was an abysmal five to six percent in 2021. The report comes as California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced subpoenas issued to Exxon Mobil as part of an investigation into the petrochemical industry’s deliberate greenwashing.

The most recent data on recycling from the EPA is from 2018, showing a national recycling rate under nine percent. Researchers used data from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and industry. They calculated 2021’s plastic recycling rate using the EPA’s and NASEM’s methods to calculate an updated number.

Researchers point out that the EPA’s methodology underestimates the recycling rate in several significant ways. For starters, the EPA uses all plastic exported for recycling, regardless of the materials’ eventuality. Furthermore, the US EPA’s reporting does not consider the loss in the recycling process. Even advanced recycling facilities lose a third of materials recycling PET, such as CarbonLITE’s latest facility and the joint venture between Alpla and Coca-Cola FEMSA.

Strategies like lightweighting (reducing the amount of plastic material used in packaging) have been touted as a way to reduce plastic consumption but, in reality, have done little to curb the rate of generated plastic waste. According to data from the US EPA, the report points out that per capita plastic waste production was 60 pounds in 1980, ballooning to 218 pounds in 2018—that's a total increase of 263%.

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The study points out that recycling natural materials such as paper is much higher. Recycling of paper in 1980 was 21.3% and rose to 68.2% by 2018. The report concludes that recycling plastic is ineffective, but not the recycling of other materials. They also found that the risk of plastic toxicity restricts many pieces of plastic packaging from getting repurposed into something that can get utilized for either food or beverage. What's more, natural gas production and fracking increased plastic production, making it cheaper to produce virgin plastics than recycled plastics.

Perhaps the most significant insight in the study is how overstated the plastic recycling rate is due to counting all exported materials as recycled. Now that countries like China refuse to receive America’s plastic waste, the reality of plastic recycling’s futility is more focused.

“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 US EPA regional administrator, in a press release.

The study concluded with proven tactics for combating plastic pollution, which focused on reducing plastic consumption, including single-use bans, water refill stations in community areas, and reusable container programs in the foodservice industry.

"We can’t be fooled any longer by illusory 'circular economy of plastics' schemes promoted by companies and the trade associations, consultants, and NGOs that they fund," the study's authors wrote. "We must use sound science, credible data, and economic facts to adopt legitimate plastic waste and pollution reduction strategies to make real progress at serious scale now. " 

Go here to read "The Real Truth About the US Plastics Recycling Rate."