A pair of groups that are working to end plastics pollution say the U.S. recycling rate is much lower than what has been previously reported and often cited.
America recycles an estimated 5-6 percent of post-consumer plastics, according to a new report from The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics. That claim is significantly lower than the commonly cited 8.7 percent plastics recycling rate for municipal solid waste (MSW) from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"The Real Truth About the U.S. Plastics Recycling Rate," published May 4, uses data from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine along with U.S. export data and information from the waste industry to determine its numbers.
Jan Dell is founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit group opposed to plastics and working to end plastics pollution.
Absent of any updates from the EPA in the last two years, Dell's group and Beyond Plastics came out with their own statistics that they claim show plastic recycling is not worth the effort.
"We have to put a big false, fake label on this concept of a circular economy of plastics, that we can collect all this stuff back up and we can recycle. … It's like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Plastic waste has no value," Dell said in a May 4 interview. "The point of the report was to factually go through the recycling rate and show what it is today so we can all use fact-based decisions."
Dell said the decision to publish was spurred on by another recent report that showed domestic plastic recycling fell in 2020 compared with 2019. That report, by Stina Inc., indicated the United States recycled 290 million pounds less in 2020 compared with the previous year, and that COVID-19 had a major impact on the numbers.
The Plastics Industry Association, not surprisingly, lambasted the report, claiming the groups used “outdated information and irrelevant data” to come up with conclusions.
“Without a proper methodology, or actual sources that have been updated in recent years, it is confusing how these groups reached final numbers at all,” the trade group said in a statement on its www.thisisplastics.com website.
“This report proves further that activist organizations cherry-pick data to attack plastics, a material that not only reduces greenhouse gases at every step of its life cycle but also ensures that every consumer has access to everyday goods,” the statement continues.
The association alleges the two groups ignored data that points to findings exactly opposite of what they published.
“Continued attacks on plastics will neither support healthier end markets nor ensure that all consumers can access the things they need every day. Instead of disseminating unfounded claims that actually hurt recycling, we must work together to ensure that all plastics have a safe end market so they can be recycled and reused for years to come,” the association said.
But Dell called plastics recycling "a failed solution" and questioned blaming the pandemic for the falling numbers. "The No. 1 myth is there is a circular economy of plastics. That's a greenwashing scam that's been promoted by products companies, the plastics industry and the NGOs they fund. And you can quote me on that," she said.
"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, president of Beyond Plastics and a former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
While plastics recycling is decreasing, the report states, per capita generation of plastic waste has jumped by 263 percent since 1980.
EPA last updated its national trash and recycling numbers in 2020 based on 2018 numbers. In that report, the federal government said 8.7 percent of all plastics from MSW was recycled. Another 15.8 percent was burned and 75.5 percent was landfilled.
Reporting on recycling and disposal numbers can get confusing. The EPA considers material generated from households as well as commercial establishments as MSW. Industrial waste created during manufacturing, however, is not included.
The two groups also said it's time for EPA to update its recycling numbers.
The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics also discount chemical recycling of plastics. They call that approach, also called advanced recycling, "neither viable nor environmentally sound."
Dell pointed to recently revealed work by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy to bolster her statistics about plastics recycling.
Scientists at the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in work to calculate the energy value of landfills plastic, estimated "only about 5 percent of the plastic waste was recycled in 2019," according to an April 28 announcement of the work. Dell said she was unaware of those findings as she worked on the estimate released May 4.
NREL estimated 86 percent of plastics were landfilled in 2019 and that represents a "lost energy opportunity," the laboratory said. About 9 percent is currently incinerated.
"For us to tackle plastic waste pollution, we really need to understand better where those resources are," said Anelia Milbrandt, a senior research analyst at NREL, in a statement. "We would like to bring awareness to communities about the potential for these materials."
"Plastic waste is not just an environmental issue. It's a waste management issue. It's also a land use issue because landfills are closing in many areas," she said.