Plastic Recycling Is a Fool's Errand

Greenpeace report says the problem is most plastic just can't be recycled
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 25, 2022 3:17 PM CDT
Plastic Recycling Is a Farce
Destination: dump.   (Getty Images / choice76)

"Plastic recycling is a dead-end street." So proclaims a new Greenpeace report that makes that very case using an underwhelming set of stats regarding the scant amount of plastic that's recycled in the US. Per the report, at our peak in 2014, America recycled 9.5% of plastic waste, though that number was inflated by the way in which it was calculated—plastic exported to China to be "recycled" was included, though much ended up incinerated or in landfills. The figure in 2021: some 5% to 6%. In Greenpeace's telling, the issue isn't a lack of effort, so much as an impossibility: "Most plastic simply cannot be recycled."

Per the report, two common plastic considered the easiest to recycle here—PET #1 and HDPE #2—are recycled and reused at rates of just 20.9% and 10.3%, meaning even if you dutifully directed all of your use of these plastics to recycling plants, the vast majority wouldn't be recycled. Why? The report finds that the plastics "being accepted by a recycling processing plant does not necessarily result in them being recycled—effectively negating the recyclability claim." NPR gets at some of the drivers of that: It's cheap to make new plastic; it's anything but cheap to recycle due to the sorting required. "There are now thousands of different types of plastic, and none of them can be melted down together," NPR explains, and after plastic is reused a time or two, it starts to degrade.

So what's a planet-conscious person to do? A Greenpeace rep offers a dig and some advice: "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. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill." As the Guardian observes, paper, cardboard, metal, and glass are recycled much more successfully. (Read more recycling stories.)

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