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Reality Check: Circular Plastic is a Myth

By Mary Riddle
circular plastic

While plastic production is increasing globally at alarming rates, plastic recycling is plummeting in the United States, according to a recent report from Greenpeace. The report confirms what to many of us has long been obvious: The vast majority of plastic is not accepted at U.S. recycling facilities, and plastic that is accepted is often dumped as there are not enough companies willing to purchase recycled plastic. New plastic is cheaper to produce and higher quality than recycled plastic, making it a more appealing choice for many manufacturers. Hence circular plastic is turning out to be a myth as the plastics industry is actually on track to triple production of new plastic by 2050.

Your plastic is probably not being recycled

Current estimates indicate that plastic recycling rates hover between 5 percent and 6 percent in the U.S. Recycling rates for paper, cardboard and certain metals are much higher, leading experts to acknowledge that the recycling system is not at fault for lack of plastic recycling, but rather the plastic materials themselves. Plastic is more often incinerated than recycled, and the report found that, by and large, only two types of plastic bottles and jugs are actually accepted at most municipal recycling facilities: PET (polyethylene terephthalate, or Plastic No. 1, which is typically used for beverage bottles) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene, or Plastic No. 2, which is often used for milk jugs and personal care packaging). Plastic recycling rates for PET are estimated to be 20.9 percent and 10.3 percent for HDPE. All other plastic types have a recycling rate of less than 5 percent. 

While other plastic products such as yogurt tubs and produce bags may display a recycling symbol, they are not actually recyclable under the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) definition of the term. The FTC requires that products that are labeled as recyclable must have recycling facilities available to accept that product for over 60 percent of U.S. residents. Only PET and HDPE bottles and jugs presently meet the FTC’s definition of recyclable. 

Additionally, just because a recycling facility accepts certain plastics does not mean that they are actually recycled. For example, in Knoxville, Tennessee, the city’s recycling facility accepts yogurt tubs, produce bags and other less-commonly accepted plastic products, but the items are disposed of and not recycled, due to the lack of available buyers of recycled plastic. 

The problems with talk about circular plastic

Greenpeace cites several fundamental reasons that plastics are not recycled: They are extremely difficult to collect and sort, environmentally damaging to reprocess, and not economical to recycle. They also include toxic materials. 

There are over a thousand varieties of plastic, but mixed plastic waste cannot be recycled together. Each type of plastic is made up of different chemical compounds with different physical properties and melting points, so even if every scrap of plastic waste was collected, the sheer quantity of plastic types makes sorting and the scaling up of circular plastic virtually impossible. 

The process of recycling plastic also creates pollution. During the recycling process, plastic products shed microplastics, which are removed through washing and discharged into the environment. The Greenpeace report notes that plastic recycling processes expose workers and adjacent communities to toxic chemicals, and globally, communities of color are more likely to suffer negative health impacts from plastic manufacturing, processing, disposal and pollution. 

What is the solution if circular plastic can become a reality?

The report argues that by pushing recycling as a solution to the plastic problem, large corporations have misled the public and created an environmental catastrophe. In 2021, the U.S. produced 51 million tons of plastic waste but only recycled 2.4 million tons. Lisa Ramsden, plastics campaigner at Greenpeace, specifically called out companies the NGO views as among the worst corporate offenders. “Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades," she said. "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.”

The report calls upon companies to work together to create and adopt international standards for phasing out single-use plastic. 

Image credit: Roberto Sorin via Unsplash

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

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