U.S. plastic waste recycling drops to 5% — generation is increasing

U.S. plastic waste recycling drops to 5% — generation is increasing
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen

This week environmental nonprofit Last Beach Cleanup released a new report, stating that the rate of plastic waste recycling in the United States was just 5%-6% in 2021. Problem caused by changes in global recycling market over the last years.

In 2017 China banned most US plastic exports. Turkey have also implemented import bans. Other countries under the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments set plastic waste contamination limits. The United States refused to ratify the convention in 2019.

Report says:

The U.S. plastic recycling rate peaked at a dismal 9.5% (including exports) and is now in an irreversible decline to eventual insignificance.

...the current 2021 U.S. plastic recycling rate is estimated to be between 5 and 6%. Factoring in additional losses that aren’t measured, such as plastic waste collected under the pretense of "recycling" that are burned, instead, the U.S.’s true plastic recycling rate may be even lower.

The U.S. must take responsibility for managing its own plastic waste.

As recycling dropped, plastic waste generation per capita has grown in the U.S. because many new types of single-use plastics are served to consumers. Some of the plastic products were falsely marketed as being recyclable, in other cases plastic has replaced other packaging materials that are recyclable. Consumers have no choice but to buy products packaged in plastic destined for the dump.

Some facts from the report:

  • Plastic waste generation is increasing in the U.S., up from 60 pounds per person per year in 1980 to 218 pounds per person in 2018 (per EPA data) – a 263% total increase (roughly 15% per year)

  • Not one single type of plastic food service item, including the polypropylene cups lids that Starbucks touts as recyclable, has ever been recyclable per the FTC Green Guide legal definition

  • Toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit "the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced" from being recycled into food grade packaging

  • The expansion of virgin plastic production is keeping the prices of high-quality new plastics low in comparison to higher cost recycled plastic

  • "Advanced" chemical recycling fails in recycling post-consumer mixed plastic waste due to insurmountable contamination, environmental, and economic barriers

The report highlights, "that plastic recycling has never lived up to the promises made by the plastics and products industries, and it never will".

Reported U.S. plastic recycling rate should be a wake-up call and lead to implementation of real solutions such as reduction of single-use plastic food service items (bags, food containers and utensils) that have the highest likelihood of polluting our environment.

Report concludes:

Proven solutions that will reduce U.S. plastic waste and pollution already exist and can be swiftly enacted. The success of single-use plastic bans, water refilling stations, and reusable food and dishware can be extended nationwide.