US households generated about 51 million tons of plastic waste last year, and only 5% of itwas recycled, according to a new report by Greenpeace. After peaking in 2014 at 10%, plastic recycling rates have been slowly declining in the US, especially after China stopped accepting plastic waste from other countries in 2018, and this just isn't sustainable.
No type of plastic packaging in the US meets the definition of recyclable used by the Federal Trade Commission or the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Initiative, Greenpeace said. An item needs to have a 30% recyclable rate in order to receive the “recyclable” tag -- and the US is not there apparently.
Two of the most common plastics in the US that are usually considered recyclable, PET1 and HDPE2, usually bottles and jugs, fall well below that standard, only achieving rates of 20.9% and 10.3% respectively. For other plastics, the rate is less than 5%.
“More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and, without drastic change, will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2060,” Lisa Ramsden, Senior Plastics Campaigner at Greenpeace USA, said in a press statement.
Growing plastic waste
A recent report by the recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found global plastic use and waste will triple by 2060, with around half ending up in landfill and less than a fifth recycled. The report projects global plastic consumption rising from 460 million tons in 2019 to 1.2 million tons in 2060.
Greenpeace’s report, Circular Claims Fall Flat Again, updated the 2020 survey of 370 recycling plants which found most plastics weren’t widely accepted, and even bottles and jugs weren’t completely recyclable. Not much has changed since then. In fact, the recycling rate in the US is declining as plastic waste increases, the environmental organization said.
According to the report, mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste fails because plastic waste is very difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, environmentally harmful to reprocess and not economical to recycle. This is why for Greenpeace the most effective solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.
“Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable,” Ramsden said. “We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It is time for corporations to turn off the plastic tap.”
The report urged companies to take additional steps, including standardized reusable packaging and adopting a Global Plastics Treaty to set up international standards. The treaty is currently being drawn up after countries supported a UN resolution to end plastic pollution. The legally binding agreement on plastics should be up and running by 2024.