A new report from Greenpeace USA paints a dire picture for recycling efforts in the United States: They’ve fundamentally failed.
“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 USA published a survey of plastic recycling in America that looked at about 370 material recovery facilities (MRFs) as part of a larger survey of America’s capacity for domestic plastic waste reprocessing. One key result was that only some types of plastic containers could actually be recycled—specifically PET#1 and HDPE#2—but that MRFs regularly accepted other types of plastics, then disposed of them because there was no “end-market buyer.” But it gets worse: PET#1 and HDPE#2 are hardly recyclable themselves, falling well below a 30 percent threshold established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative.
Recycling plastic waste fails for a variety of reasons that Greenpeace boils down to: the impossibility of collection and sorting, the environmental toxicity, synthetic compositions and contamination, and a lack of economic feasibility.
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