U.S. plastics recycling rate slumps below 6%, analysis finds

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Americans are recycling far less plastic as rates fell below 6% in 2021, according to a new analysis published Wednesday, with waste ballooning despite global efforts to curb pollution.

The research from Beyond Plastics and the Last Beach Cleanup aims to shed light on the state of recycling in the United States given a delay in federal reporting. The Environmental Protection Agency last published recycling rates in 2020 based off data through 2018 and did not update it last year.

Drawing on the most recent EPA data available and last year’s plastic-waste exports, the new report estimates that Americans recycled 5 to 6% of their plastics, down from the 8.7% in 2018. But the real figure could be even lower, it added, given factors such as the plastic waste collected for recycling that is “sent to cement kilns and burned.”

“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,” said Judith Enck, who heads Beyond Plastics and served as a regional EPA administrator during the Obama administration. “Instead, we need consumer brand companies and governments to adopt policies that reduce the production, usage and disposal of plastics.”

Though plastics use fell in the early days of the pandemic, consumption has rebounded along with economic activity. Meanwhile, plastic waste exports—which the authors said are counted toward recycling numbers without proof—have plummeted in the wake of import bans by countries such as China and Turkey.

Plastics production in on track to unleash more emissions than coal-fired power plants by the end of the decade, research has found, with the industry emitting at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year.

Millions of tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, ensnaring turtles and other wildlife. Even Mount Everest has not escaped microplastics pollution. The United States contributes most to this deluge, according to a National Academy of Sciences study, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person.

At the current rate of emissions, the world will burn through its remaining “carbon budget” by 2030—putting the ambitious goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) irrevocably out of reach, according to the latest report from the U.N. Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change.

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report or why it has not published more recent recycling figures. According to the United States’ first national recycling strategy, the EPA is aiming to achieve a 50% recycling rate by 2030. Some critics faulted that strategy for not taking aim at current levels of plastics production.

The nation’s plastic recycling rate peaked at 9.5% in 2014, according to EPA data, “although that number also counted U.S. exported material as recycled when it was largely burned or dumped,” the report states.

High recycling rates for other materials such as post-consumer paper, cardboard and metal “prove that recycling can be an effective way to reclaim valuable natural material resources,” the report said. “The problem lies not with the concept or process of recycling but with the material itself—it is plastic recycling that has always failed.”

Plastics, the vast majority of which are made from fossil fuels, can take hundreds of years to decompose. Rather than fully degrade, plastic breaks down into smaller pieces called “microplastics.” Over the course of a lifetime, individuals on average unknowingly consume more than 44 pounds of microplastics.

Globally, only 9% of plastic is recycled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s first Global Plastics Outlook, which was published in February. Fifty percent ends up in landfills, 19% is incinerated, and 22% is “mismanaged” and ends up in uncontrolled dump sites, is burned in open pits or ends up as litter.

“Despite the stark failure of plastics recycling, the plastics, packaging, and products industries have waged a decades-long misinformation campaign to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable,” the report states.

In late April, California Attorney General Rob Bonta opened an investigation into fossil fuel and petrochemical industries’ role in “causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis.” Bonta’s office issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, seeking information into its efforts to mislead consumers about the efficacy of plastics recycling.

Not a single plastic service item “has even been recyclable” by the legal definition outlined by the Federal Trade Commission “green guides,” the report found, including the polypropylene cups and lids touted by Starbucks.

In March, the United Nations adopted a first-of-its-kind, legally binding treaty to “end plastic pollution.” The details of the treaty will be hashed out by 2024.

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