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Study finds Americans are only recycling 5% of their plastic waste

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J-P Mauro - published on 05/09/22

Environmental activists see the push for consumer recycling as a failed project, and are calling for corporate and government policies "that reduce the production, usage, and disposal of plastics.”

A recently released study from the U.S. Department of Energy is bringing attention to the low rates of recycling in the country. The report found that only 5% of plastic waste was recycled in 2019, with 86% landfilled and the remaining 9% incinerated to generate electricity. 

According to The Guardian, the report cited several factors for the decline of recycling, including population growth, low recycling rates, and consumer preference for single-use plastics. The study also notes that the impact of plastic waste has been compounded by China banning U.S. plastic waste imports in 2017. 

Last Beach Cleanup, an organization whose goal is to end plastic pollution, noted in its own analysis that plastic waste per person has increased by 263%, since 1980. Their report goes on to note that while about 5% of plastic waste is placed in recycling bins, not all of this plastic actually gets recycled. It is estimated that only around 30% of PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) is reused in the recycling process. 

In a news release, also from Last Beach Cleanup, Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and former U.S. E.P.A. Regional Administrator, suggested that the situation would require a cooperative effort between the government and corporations:

“The plastics industry must stop lying to the public about plastics recycling. It does not work, it never will work, and no amount of false advertising will change that. Instead, we need consumer brand companies and governments to adopt policies that reduce the production, usage, and disposal of plastics.”

Misleading labels

The report included a variety of suggestions for moving away from single-use plastics. Jan Dell, founder of the Last Beach Cleanup, advised that moving to paper-based packaging is effective, as paper products are biodegradable. In comments to the Guardian, however, she suggested that current recycling labels are misleading to the public:

“They have co-opted America’s love of recycling and the thought that we are doing something good for the environment, when they knew all along it wasn’t recycling,” she says. “They leveraged the heartstrings of consumers and said this stuff was recyclable.”

Resource-Recycling turns the conversation from the environmental impact to the issue of waste management. They note that every landfill has its limits and as more locations close, there will be a greater need for efficient recycling. 

Learn more at The Guardian. 

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