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Despite Sustainability Goals, Plastic Recycling Is Decreasing

Research finds plastic recycling rate has never reached 10%

May 12, 2022

Recycling is considered an essential part of U.S. efforts to boost sustainability practices and reduce waste. Facilities and individual households have been dutifully rinsing their plastics and placing them in special receptacles for pickup. Many are directly transporting their plastic to recycling centers, feeling like they are making a difference.

A series of new studies finds that all these efforts may be for naught. Even though Americans’ use of plastic rose during the pandemic—in the form of takeout containers, plastic bags, and face masks—the country responded by recycling less of it than it has in the past, CBS news reports.  

In 2019, only 5% of U.S.-made plastic was recycled, according to scientists with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). A similar report from Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup found between 5% and 6% of plastic made in the U.S. is recycled. The remaining 9% is burned and 85% ends up in landfills.

“In the whole history of plastics recycling, it never ever got to double digits—it never got to 10%,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics. In comparison, environment advocates say the paper recycling rate has steadily risen and is now at about 66%. 

Plastic is more difficult to recycle than other materials. Unlike aluminum or glass, plastic is composed of numerous substances instead of one. The different polymers, chemical additives, and colorants make recycling a challenge. Sorting and processing plastics takes a lot of effort, and some of it is discarded for being too dirty while up to one-third is lost to the recycling process itself.

Price is another obstacle to plastic recycling. Virgin plastic, which is mostly created from fossil fuels using government subsidies, is consistently much cheaper and less labor-intensive to make than recycled plastic. Soft drink bottles made from recycled plastic can cost twice as much as new ones.

To solve the problem of ever-growing amounts of plastic garbage in landfills and waterways, Beyond Plastics and the National Academy of Sciences both advocate drastic reductions on plastic packaging. Instead, they encourage the use of paper, metal, or glass and shifting to reusable containers.

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