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Greg Heilers headshot

Report: Supposedly 'Recyclable' Material is Clogging U.S. Landfills, Often Shipped Abroad

Countless items that consumers assume are recyclable are actually landfilled or shipped to developing countries far away from where they were first collected, according to a recent report from Greenpeace.
By Greg Heilers

In a recent report, Greenpeace found recycling rates to be astonishingly low at all 367 operating material recovery facilities (MRFs) across the United States. Countless items that many consumers assume to be recyclable are either landfilled or shipped far away from the municipalities in which they were first collected.

Just a few of the findings from Greenpeace’s study, which looked at data between October 2019 and January 2020, include the discovery that only 14 percent of facilities accept plastic clamshells (popular takeout containers) and a scant 1 percent are able to process plastic knives, forks, spoons, straws and stirrers. Plastic cups are accepted at 11 percent of facilities, and single-use plastic bags are recycled at a mere 4 percent.

That leads many to wonder: Are our products recyclable in reality, or only in theory? And can recent announcements of new recycling technologies and partnerships make any difference?

Just how much is recycled?

As with any contentious issue, the numbers vary per source.

Joe Pickard, an economist at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI),  offered the standard argument in a recent report from the industry group: “Recycling is a strong and robust industry that preserves our planet and sustains our natural resources.” ISRI’s latest Recycling Industry Yearbook concluded that the processing of recyclable materials across the U.S. increased to 138 million metric tons in 2018, up from 135 million the year before. 

Further, U.S. scrap exports grew by 7 percent, to 40.4 million metric tons in 2018, contributing to global manufacturers’ consumption of more than 900 million metric tons of scrap metal. That amount, according to ISRI, is approximately 40 percent of the raw material that industries worldwide consume.

Still, the Recycling Partnership's 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report found that only 32 percent of available materials from single-family homes in the U.S. is recycled. That means Americans send over 20 million tons of recyclable materials to landfill each year.

The Recycling Partnership’s CEO, Keefe Harrison, advocated for not only increasing our curbside pickups, but also incorporating circular design into product development. In a public statement, Harrison said, “This is an important point in time to pivot our society's current make-to-waste approach to a more circular economy – one that focuses on everything from smart chemistry and design, production, all the way through to reuse and recycling.”

Where are these “recyclables” going?

Beyond our own landfills, Greenpeace found a diverse range of destinations for our materials that are marked with the chasing arrows recycling symbol but in reality have few second-life markets.

California leads the U.S. in their export of plastic waste to countries that have notoriously poor waste management practices, sending more than 175 million pounds of waste abroad in 2019. Texas (80 million pounds) and Illinois (77 million pounds) follow closely behind.

U.S. states and territories that exported a significant amount of plastic (10 million kilograms or 22 million pounds) in 2019 included Georgia, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. A city representative from Seattle, for example, told Greenpeace that 60 percent of the city’s plastic waste is exported overseas.

Popular destinations for California’s waste that is not landfilled or recycled within the Golden State include Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan and India. MRFs in Tucson, Arizona, are still able to sell mass quantities of trash to China, and they also export to Taiwan, Indonesia, and India. Sonoco’s export services for North and South Carolina send materials to “countries all over the world.”

Who’s at fault?

It’s easy to blame consumers, but environmental groups and policymakers have recently shifted focus to manufacturers.

“Retailers and consumer goods companies across the country are frequently putting labels on their products that mislead the public and harm America’s recycling systems,” John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement.

As an example, the report shows a photo of a full body shrink sleeve in clear violation of two counts of the Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides, which state that recyclability claims are deceptive if any aspect of the item limits its ability to be recycled, as well as strictly forbidding companies from requesting that consumers remove components to enable recycling.

Greenpeace’s findings align with the intent behind the recent Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, which aims to put the onus of plastic recyclability on manufacturers instead of municipalities and consumers.

Image credit: Hans Braxmeier/Pixabay

Greg Heilers headshot

Greg Heilers writes on green business and sustainability for private clients and top publications. After graduating from university, he had the privilege to learn from opportunities in France, Palestine, Scotland, Guatemala and the USA. Today, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and enjoys any chance he gets to garden or hike.

Read more stories by Greg Heilers