Recycling plastic is next to impossible - and the problem is getting worse

Recycling plastic is next to impossible – and the problem is getting worse

Plastic is piling up at a recycling plant in Salem, Oregon.

Laura Sullivan/NPR

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Laura Sullivan/NPR

Plastic is piling up at a recycling plant in Salem, Oregon.

Laura Sullivan/NPR

The vast majority of the plastic people put in recycling bins is headed to landfills, or worse, according to a Greenpeace report on the state of plastic recycling in the United States.

The report cites separate data released in May that revealed the amount of plastic actually turned into new things has fallen to new lows of around 5%. This number is expected to drop further as more plastic is produced.

Greenpeace found that no plastic — not even soda bottles, one of the most prolific items thrown into recycling bins — meets the threshold to qualify as “recyclable” under the standards set by the Ellen Foundation. MacArthur New Plastic Economy Initiative. Plastic must have a 30% recycling rate to meet this standard; no plastic has ever been recycled and reused at a rate close to this rate.

“More plastic is produced, and an even smaller percentage is recycled,” says Lisa Ramsden, plastics campaign manager for Greenpeace USA. “The crisis is only getting worse and, without dramatic change, it will continue to get worse as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.”

Waste management experts say the problem with plastic is that it is expensive to collect and sort. There are thousands of different types of plastic today, and none of them can be melted together. The plastic also degrades after one or two uses. Greenpeace has discovered that the more plastic is reused, the more toxic it becomes.

The new plastic, on the other hand, is cheap and easy to produce. The result is that plastic waste has few markets – a reality the public hasn’t wanted to hear.

Trent Carpenter, general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, said when they told customers a few years ago they could no longer take out plastic trash other than soda bottles and jugs — like containers of milk and bottles of detergent – ​​people were upset. They wanted to put their strawberry containers, bags, yogurt tubs and all kinds of plastic waste in their recycling bin.

“We had to re-educate individuals that a lot of this material ends up in a landfill,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t go to a recycling facility and gets recycled. It goes to a recycling facility and gets landfilled somewhere else because [you] I can’t do anything with this material.”

This message has been difficult for the public to take in with so many different bins in public spaces and their own communities telling them to put their plastic in recycling containers.

Carpenter says they wanted to be transparent with their customers and tell them the truth, unlike companies that keep telling customers that plastic, like bags and containers, are being turned into new things.

“Politically, it’s easier to just say, ‘God, we’re going to take it all and we think we can recycle it,’ and then look away,” Carpenter said of other companies. “This is greenwashing at its best.”

Greenpeace found that a few facilities were trying to reprocess cups and containers – sometimes called “number 5” because of the markings on the containers. But the numbers are low. While 52% of recycling facilities in the United States accept this type of plastic, the report found that less than 5% of it is actually reused – and the rest goes to landfill.

Low reprocessing rates are at odds with oil and gas industry plans. Industry lobbyists say they plan to recycle every piece of plastic they make into something new by 2040. In interviews with NPR, industry officials weren’t sure. able to explain how they planned to achieve a 100% recycling rate.

A 2020 NPR investigative report found industry officials had misled the public about the recyclability of plastic, even though their own reports showed they knew as far back as the 1970s and 1980s that plastic couldn’t be recycled economically.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group, did not respond to NPR’s request for comment on the Greenpeace report.

Environmentalists and lawmakers in some states are now pushing for legislation banning single-use plastics and for “bottle bills” that pay customers to return their plastic bottles. The bills have led to successful recycling rates for plastic bottles in places like Oregon and Michigan, but have faced strong resistance from plastic and oil industry lobbyists .

“The real solution is to move to reuse and refill systems,” Ramsden said. “We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It is time for companies to turn off the plastic tap.”

After years of embracing plastic recycling, many environmental groups say they hope the public will finally see plastic for what it says it is – waste – and people will wonder if there is anything else. something they could use instead.

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