Recycling plastic is virtually impossible – and the problem is getting worse

Plastic piles at a recycling facility in Salem, Oregon.

Laura Sullivan / NPR

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Laura Sullivan / NPR

Plastic piles at a recycling facility in Salem, Oregon.

Laura Sullivan / NPR

The vast majority of plastic people put in recycling bins heads to landfills, or worse, according to a report by Greenpeace on the state of plastic recycling in the United States.

The report cites separate data published last May that revealed that the amount of plastic already converted into new stuff has fallen to new lows of around 5%. This number is expected to decline further as more plastic is produced.

Greenpeace has found that no plastic — not even soda bottles, one of the most prolific items thrown into recycling bins — meets the threshold of being called “recyclable” under criteria set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the New Plastic Economy Initiative. . The plastic must have a 30% recycling rate to reach this standard; Plastic has never been recycled and reused near this rate.

“More plastic is being produced, and less is recycled,” says Lisa Ramsden, Senior Plastics Campaigner for Greenpeace USA. “The crisis is getting worse, and without fundamental change it will continue to get worse as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.”

Waste management experts say the problem with plastic is the high cost of collecting and sorting it. There are now thousands of different types of plastic, and none of them can be melted together. Plastic also degrades after one or two uses. Greenpeace has found that the more plastic is reused, the more toxic it becomes.

On the other hand, new plastic is cheap and easy to produce. The result is that plastic trash markets have few markets – a fact the public didn’t want to hear.

Trent Carpenter, general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, says when two years ago they told customers they could no longer take any plastic trash other than soda bottles and jugs — such as milk containers and detergent bottles — people were upset. They wanted to put strawberry containers, bags, yogurt cups, and all kinds of plastic trash in their recycling bin.

“We had to re-educate people that a lot of that stuff ends up in landfill,” Carpenter said. “You wouldn’t go to a recycling facility and be recycled. It would go to a recycling facility and be buried somewhere else because [you] You can’t do anything with this substance.”

It has been difficult for the public to absorb this message with so many different bins in public spaces, and their communities asking them to put the plastic into recycling containers.

Carpenter says they wanted to be transparent with their customers and tell them the truth, as opposed to companies that keep telling customers that plastic, like bags and containers, is being made into new things.

Politically, Carpenter said of the other companies, “It’s easier to just say ‘Oh my God, we’re going to take everything and think we can recycle it,’ and then look the other way.” “This is a green wash at its best.”

Greenpeace found that two facilities were trying to reprocess cups and containers – sometimes called “No. 5” because of the markings on the containers. But the numbers are low. While 52% of U.S. recycling facilities accept this type of plastic, the report found that less than 5% of it has actually been reused — and the rest is put into landfill.

Low reprocessing rates run counter to the plans of the oil and gas industry. Industry lobbyists say they plan to recycle every piece of plastic they make into something new by 2040. In interviews with NPR, industry officials were unable to explain how they planned to reach a 100 percent recycling rate.

A 2020 NPR investigative report found that industry officials misled the public about recycling plastic even though their own reports showed that they had known since the 1970s and 1980s that plastics could not be economically recycled.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group, did not respond to NPR’s request for comment on the Greenpeace report.

Environmentalists and lawmakers in some states are now pushing for legislation to ban single-use plastics, and “bottle bills” that pay customers to return their plastic bottles. The bills have led to successful recycling rates for plastic bottles in places like Oregon and Michigan, but they have faced stiff resistance from plastics and oil industry lobbyists.

“The real solution is to switch to reuse and refill systems,” Ramsden said. “We’re at the point of deciding on plastic pollution. It’s time for companies to shut down the plastic taps.”

After years of embracing plastic recycling, many environmental groups say they hope the public will finally see plastic for what they say it is — trash — and that people will ask themselves if there is something else they can use instead.

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