The amount of plastic waste being created is increasing, while the percentage being recycled in the U.S. is declining, according to a Greenpeace report published October 24.

Few U.S. facilities can recycle anything other than no. 1 or no. 2 plastics, which is the number on the bottle designating the type of resin used in production. As a result, most U.S. plastic waste placed in residential recycling bins is not recycled.

Only 5-6% of all plastic waste produced in the U.S. that could technically be recycled was actually recycled in 2021 – down from 9.5% in 2014.

Much of the plastic waste generated in the U.S. is either placed into landfills, incinerated or shipped overseas to locations often without verified recycling facilities or official landfills. As a 2019 report from Gaia explained, this results in a “flood” of plastic waste into lower-income nations from the U.S., which was the world’s leading plastic waste producer by volume in 2020.

Greenpeace surveyed 375 material recovery services facilities that accept and sort plastic waste in the U.S., finding that most only accept no. 1 and no. 2 plastics. Acceptance at the material recovery facilities does not mean the items will be recycled, the report emphasized, as they dispose of any accepted plastic waste that is not, or cannot be, recycled.

While a few facilities accept no. 3-7 plastics, they do so knowing that the vast majority that is received will be sent to a landfill (locally or overseas) or incinerated because few facilities are available to process these resin types.

For example, 52% of the 375 material recovery facilities surveyed will accept no. 5 plastics, 11% will accept plastic clamshell containers (the kind used for “to go” food), 9% will accept plastic cups, 5% will accept plastic trays and 1% will accept plastic bags. Yet, less than 5% of each plastic waste type is sent to reprocessing facilities to be recycled.

In addition, current plastic waste reprocessing facilities can only process 20.9% of all no. 1 and 10.3% of all no. 2 plastic waste received by the material recovery facilities.

Even when plastic waste is recycled, it creates new challenges and problems, the Greenpeace report noted.

Microplastics are created as a result of the recycling processes, which make their way into local waterways and, ultimately, the world’s oceans. This recycling waste becomes part of the estimated eight million metric tons of plastic waste that enter the oceans each year.

In addition, the process of melting down plastics for reuse can expose both workers in recycling facilities and residents in communities near these facilities to harmful toxins.

“Single-use plastics are like trillions of pieces of confetti spewed from retail and fast-food stores to over 330 million U.S. residents across more than 3 million square miles each year. It’s simply not possible to collect the vast quantity of these small pieces of plastic sold to U.S. consumers annually,” said Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner, in a press release announcing the report. “More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and, without drastic change, will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.”

The full report is available here. The appendix, detailing the types of material U.S. residential material recovery facilities will accept and recycle, is available here.

Share This