Only 5% of Plastic Waste Generated in U.S. in 2021 Was Recycled, Study Finds
A new report from Greenpeace found that of the 51 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. last year, only 5% was recycled. What about the rest of it? It went to landfills or ended up as ocean pollution or dispersed as tiny particles in the air.
It’s no secret that recycling isn’t working, and plastic reduction is key to preventing more waste in landfills and the oceans. But the Greenpeace report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” shows just how ineffective recycling is.
Last year, the U.S. generated about 309 pounds of plastic per person, and although companies and industries are boasting on recyclable products and recycling efforts, the Greenpeace report noted that recycling is now down to about 5%. In the U.S., recycling reached a high of 9.5% in 2014 and is down from 8.7% in 2018, but much of the waste counted as recycled at that time was actually exported to China for incineration or dumping.
In 2021, only 2.4 million tons of the 51 million tons of generated plastic waste was recycled in the country. The report also found that no type of plastic packaging in the U.S. meets the definitions for recyclable outlined by Federal Trade Commission or the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy (EMF NPE) Initiative.
According to the EMF NPE Initiative’s definition, the item needs to meet a 30% recycling rate to be considered recyclable. In the U.S., PET #1 and HDPE #2 are most commonly considered recyclable, but only reach recycling rates of 20.9% for PET #1 and 10.3% for HDPE #2. For other plastic types, recycling rates are all below 5%. Even for plastics commonly considered recyclable, they aren’t always reprocessed at a recycling plant, making the process more misleading for consumers.
“Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades,” Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA senior plastics campaigner, said in a statement. “But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.”
In addition to the low reprocessing rates for most types of plastic, the report noted that the sheer volume of plastic generated each year also makes it difficult to recycle. Without intervention, plastic production is expected to triple by 2050.
The manufacturing of more plastic each year is also harmful because more than 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels. Greenpeace is calling on companies to phase out single-use plastic, commit to reusable packaging and adopt a Global Plastics Treaty for international standards on plastic waste and reduction.
“We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It is time for corporations to turn off the plastic tap,” Ramsden said. “Instead of continuing to greenwash and mislead the American public, industry should stand on the right side of history this November and support an ambitious Global Plastics Treaty that will finally end the age of plastic by significantly decreasing production and increasing refill and reuse.”