When most people toss a plastic bottle or cup in the trash, they assume the plastic will be recycled, but a new report shows how rarely that actually happens.
According to the Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, the organization behind the report published Wednesday, the recycling rate for post-consumer plastic was only 5% to 6% in 2021.
The Department of Energy also released a research paper this week, which analyzed data from 2019 and came to the same number: only 5% of plastics are recycled. The researchers in that report wrote that landfill plastic waste is on the rise in the United States for many reasons, including “low recycling rates, population growth, consumer preference for single-use plastics, and low disposal fees in certain parts of the country,” according to a press release.
The problem has also been exacerbated by shifts in the global recycling market, including China’s 2017 ban on most US plastic exports. Countries like China used to accept ships full of plastic waste from the US, says Jan Dell, founder of Last Beach Cleanup, but without that option, more plastic is thrown away as few facilities in the US have the capacity to recycle it.
“The rate of plastic recycling in the US has never been about 4% to 5%,” she says. “We don’t have factories to do it. It’s also very water-intensive, so we’re not going to build any more plastic recycling facilities in the US.”
According to Dell research, about 85% of plastic ends up in landfills and the remaining 10% is incinerated. And even when plastics are recycled, about a third of the material from a PET plastic bottle is wasted.
The report from The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics also revealed that while plastic recycling is on the decline, the production of plastic waste per person in the US has increased by 263% since 1980, from £60 per person to £218 per person, according to the report.
Plastics stand out as hugely wasteful in the world of recycling: paper is recycled at 66% according to the American Forest and Products Association, while the figure for aluminum cans is about 50.4% according to the EPA.
“We can’t stay in the single-use plastic nightmare scenario that we are in today,” Dell says. “There’s no way out of here without cutting the waste to begin with.”
Dell says solutions exist to replace single-use plastics, such as fiber-based food trays that can be composted or recycled. She says Nestle has replaced plastic on candy in the UK with paper – something they call ‘paperification’. And of course it also helps to reuse and refill bottles instead of throwing them away after use.
She adds that the plastic makers have been really deceiving by slapping the triangular “hunting arrows” shape on the bottom of products and tricking people into thinking they are recyclable, when in fact the symbol doesn’t guarantee that. “They’ve taken over the American love for recycling and the idea that we’re doing something good for the environment, when they knew all along that it wasn’t recycling,” she says. “They tapped into consumers’ hearts and said this stuff was recyclable.”
Bans on single-use plastic items such as bags, food containers and utensils are gaining popularity, with versions adopted in the European Union, the state of California and Los Angeles, among others. But such rules must go further, the report says. “Proven solutions that will reduce plastic waste and pollution in the US already exist and can be implemented soon. The success of single-use plastic bans, water filling stations and reusable food and tableware can be extended nationwide.”