AMBR members sort, bale, and ship millions of pounds of plastics for recycling each year to be made into new products, reducing the need to use fossil fuels to produce new plastics.
It makes for a great the-sky-is-falling headline: plastics recycling is a myth!
As recyclers, we know all too well there are a myriad of challenges in plastic recycling, but these headlines likely make people wonder if recycling is working at all. We hear the question all the time: are my plastics really being recycled? We appreciate these questions because plastics recycling is complicated and has legitimate challenges. As trusted, community-based recyclers, we want to be fully transparent about what happens to your plastics, when plastics recycling can work, when it doesn’t, and why plastics recycling isn’t enough to solve our plastics problem.
Let’s set the record straight on the facts and myths on plastics recycling:
- Yes: Your plastic bottles, tubs, and jars are being recycled and made into new products.
- Sometimes: Other plastics are effectively recycled too but it varies program by program.
- Never: If you put something non-recyclable in your recycling bin, it is not getting recycled. Overall, there is far too much plastic, most of it is not designed to be recyclable, most will never be recycled, and recycling alone will never solve the plastics pollution crisis.
What Does Work in Plastics Recycling
Nearly 4.8 billion pounds of plastic were recycled in the US in 2020 by more than 180 companies. More than 90% of this was recycled in North America. Due to new laws in California and Washington requiring companies to use more recycled plastic in their products, there is record high demand for these recycled plastics and recycling rates need to double or even triple to keep up with the projected new demand.
Recycling plastics reduces the need to use fossil fuels to make new plastics and using recycled materials to make new products is one of the best ways to reduce the environmental impacts of products. Recycling PET and HDPE plastics can save 75 to 88% of the energy used to make virgin plastics and reduce GHG emissions by 70%. Recycling plastics also reduces air and water pollution compared to virgin production.
US recycling programs manage a mix of cardboard, paper, metal, glass and plastics. Across the US, about 10% of the materials entering recycling facilities are recyclable plastic packaging. The most commonly accepted and most easily recycled plastics are #1 PET beverage bottles and #2 HDPE bottles and jugs. Some programs are also able to accept and responsibly recycle #5 polypropylene containers. If you are recycling these materials, your materials are being recycled and more work is needed to ensure more of these plastics are collected and effectively recycled.
|Recyclable Plastic Type||End Product|
|PET (#1) : Includes soda and water bottles, clamshells food containers||Primarily bottles, some carpet and polyester clothing|
|HDPE (#2): Includes milk jugs, laundry detergent, shampoo bottles, and tubs||Personal care product packaging, housewares, and drainage pipes|
|Polypropylene (#5): Includes yogurt tubs, salsa tubs||Paint containers and automotive industry parts.|
But, wait, there is A LOT more plastic in the world than just #1, #2 and #5 bottles, tubs, jugs and jars. What about the rest of it?
What Sometimes Works in Plastics Recycling
Across the US, there are countless pilot projects, voluntary initiatives, and other programs to try to increase and improve plastics recycling, from recycling carpet to electronics to packaging. Some of these programs do work in some regions and it’s challenging to make any type of broad generalization. In some cases, while the program may be working at a small scale, the question is whether or not it is a viable, scalable solution, or if there are other alternative solutions such as scaling up reuse or refill options or using a different type of packaging. For example, there are many programs to recycle plastic grocery bags into plastic lumber used for decking and outdoor furniture. While many of these programs are legitimately recycling these bags, a better environmental solution is to reduce the use of bags altogether.
What was Never Designed to Work in Plastics Recycling
Despite the chasing arrow symbol on plastic products and packaging, most plastic packaging is not actually recyclable. If you add your old garden hose, a plastic CD case, or a Styrofoam coffee cup to the recycling cart in the hopes that we can recycle it, we cannot and it will end up as trash. Difficult-to-recycle plastics include colored and black plastic, packaging foam, and plastics stamped with a #3, #6, or #7. These types of plastics are more toxic to produce and market demand for them has always been low to non-existent. We are only able to recycle those materials specified on our recycling guidelines, and as mission-based recyclers, we work hard to create specific guidelines to ensure we are only accepting what we can authentically recycle.
There is a very commonly cited statistic that only 9% of plastics ever made have been recycled. This does not mean that only 9% of the plastics collected in recycling programs are recycled; it means that only 9% of plastics ever produced have been collected for recycling, mostly because the vast majority of plastic products and packaging have no real recycling process. This doesn’t mean we have a recycling crisis–this means we have a plastic packaging crisis. Companies simply produce too much non-recyclable plastic and take little to no responsibility for plastic pollution and waste.
Problems with Plastics are Trashing Real Recycling
The news articles focused on the problems with plastics are dangerous because they are trashing the credibility of real recycling for plastic bottles and the entire recycling system, including metals, paper, and glass, and leave people less likely to recycle overall. Plastics make up less than 10% of what is recycled in most community programs. The other 90% is valuable cardboard, paper, metal, and glass materials. Less recycling leads to more virgin resource extraction to make new products, which in turn leads to more climate pollution, more fossil fuel extraction, more air and water pollution, and more health risks. Short story: less recycling = wrong direction.
There is no disputing that non-recyclable plastics trash recycling facilities. We see it every day at our recycling facilities. From California to Colorado, Michigan to Minnesota, non-recyclable plastics tangle up the sorting machines, contaminate the paper and glass streams, and drive up costs by increasing labor and sorting expenses, decreasing efficiencies, and forcing recycling facilities to pay for plastics disposal. But it’s important to understand that these are plastics that were never designed to be recycled in the first place. That’s why AMBR focuses on reducing plastic production first, then recycling only those plastics we need which can be safely recycled.
Solutions for Real Change
Recycling reduces climate pollution and fossil fuel extraction, and is an important part of the solution to reduce plastic production and build toward a Zero Waste circular economy. But we cannot simply recycle our way out of the plastics pollution crisis. Learn more about AMBR’s 7-step strategy to improve plastics recycling and reduce plastic consumption.