Most plastics packaging in the United States does not meet the federal government's legal definition of recyclable, and none of it meets the tougher criteria put forward by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its global network of plastic pacts, a new Greenpeace report is charging.
The Oct. 24 report, "Circular Claims Fall Flat Again," said that only PET and high density polyethylene bottles would be able to be labeled recyclable under the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and its Green Guides, which say that at least 60 percent of U.S. residents must have access to community collection programs for a material to be considered recyclable.
As well, none of the plastics packaging, including PET and HDPE bottles, meets the tougher guidelines from the MacArthur Foundation and its network of global plastics pacts, which require recycling rates above 30 percent "in practice and at scale" for a material to be considered recyclable.
The new Greenpeace report updates a 2020 survey it did of the 375 material recovery facilities in the U.S. that process recycled materials. The report concludes, as it did in 2020, that only PET and HDPE are "widely accepted" by MRFs.
Greenpeace said the report, prepared with the environmental group The Last Beach Cleanup, showed most plastics are not recyclable in practice and said society should move toward more reuse and refill packaging systems.
"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," said Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA senior plastics campaigner. "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."
Greenpeace said its data showed a 20.9 percent domestic reprocessing capacity for PET bottles and a 10.3 percent figure for HDPE bottles.
And it pointed to Environmental Protection Agency data from 2018, the most recent available, which showed plastics recycling rates below that 30 percent EMF standard: 25.5 percent for PET containers and packaging and 14.8 percent for HDPE.
Beyond those two materials, it pointed to EPA data showing lower rates. A 2.7 percent rate for polypropylene containers and packaging, 3.6 percent for polystyrene and 9.9 percent for low density PE.
The report said only PET and HDPE from recycling systems were accepted by 100 percent of the MRFs, while 52 percent accepted polypropylene tubs.
For other plastic packaging — including clamshells, PS foam, trays, cups, cutlery, wrappers and pouches and coffee pods — it was much, much lower: Between zero and 11 percent of MRFs accepted them.
Greenpeace said nonplastic materials can be recycled effectively, but plastics have too many challenges, including that they are hard to sort, particularly in mixed grades; that the toxicity of additives within plastics are increasingly problematic to recycling; and that the economics are tough.
"The high recycling rates of post-consumer paper, cardboard, and metals in the U.S. prove that recycling can be an effective way to reclaim valuable natural material resources," the report said. "Plastic recycling in particular has failed because the thousands of types of synthetic plastic materials produced are fundamentally not recyclable."