Plastic Recycling Is a Hoax

Environmental groups say the plastics industry has been lying all along
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted May 8, 2022 5:40 PM CDT
Updated May 14, 2022 6:30 AM CDT
Plastic Recycling Is a Hoax
A boy stands amid plastic waste from a plastic bottle recycling plant at a slum area in Mumbai, India. Environmentalists say just 9% of plastics get recycled globally; the rate is far lower in the United States   (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

Last year, Americans recycled at most 6% of their plastic waste, according to a report released Wednesday by a pair of environmental groups. It's a number that's even worse than it used to be. Every American produced an average 218 pounds of plastic waste in 2018, per Reuters, and the recycling rate stood at 8.7% that year, the last for which the EPA published relevant data. As for the decrease, it's not just that people aren't using recycling bins; the problem is that plastic isn’t very recyclable, and it never has been.

The report's authors lay blame on the plastics industry itself. As Judith Enck of Beyond Plastics puts it, "[Plastic recycling] does not work, it never will work, and no amount of false advertising will change that." Coauthor Jan Dell of the Last Beach Cleanup adds, "There is no circular economy of plastics. Companies co-opted the success of other material recycling and America's desire to recycle to create the myth that plastic is recyclable." As EcoWatch reports, the recycling of other materials has been effective; it cites paper recycling rates around 66%, glass around 30%, and cardboard at nearly 90%. Only plastic recycling rates have never cracked 10%.

Indeed, USA Today reports that, at best, just 9% of plastics ever produced have been recycled, and even that figure is probably exaggerated: The US counts exported plastic waste as "recycled" even though 25% to 75% is "inadequately managed in receiving countries." Left to its own devices, plastic degrades over time and becomes microplastics that contaminate the environment and human bodies, reports the Washington Post. Research shows every person will consume about 44 pounds of microplastics in their lifetime.

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Many nations are addressing the problem through the UN’s Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments, but the US has not signed on. Vice notes that California is taking action on its own: Last Thursday Attorney General Rob Bonta announced an investigation into the petroleum industry and its alleged role in causing plastics pollution and pushing the idea plastic is recyclable, noting, "Enough is enough. For more than half a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis." (This analysis found the US is to blame for the world's plastics deluge.)

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