What’s needed is a reduction of single-use packaging, investment in reuse infrastructure, and scale-up of authentic recycling solutions for plastic packaging that IS recyclable.
Congratulations to Greenpeace on an excellent report, Circular Claims Fall Flat Again, which highlights an issue that we in the recycling industry deal with every day—the fact that most plastics are not recyclable. Though the plastics industry often lays the responsibility for recovering the ever-increasing volumes of plastics at the feet of the recycling industry and consumers, most plastics simply are not candidates for recycling. And because they aren’t designed for recycling, they never will be. As the report rightly states, massive and immediate investments in reuse and refill systems are needed to address the single-use plastic packaging crisis and the damage it is causing to human and environmental health.
Getting Clear on the Numbers: Recyclable Plastics Are Recycled
Unfortunately, the media has largely misinterpreted some of the numbers of the report, and it has generated a lot of confusion in the public and an unintended impact of causing consumers to lose faith that the materials they put in the recycling bin are being recycled, even if they are accepted in their local programs. NPR and others have been misquoting the report, conveying that only 5% of plastics put in recycling bins is recycled, suggesting that 95% of the plastics that you put in your recycling cart are being landfilled or burned. That is NOT accurate, and it is not what the report says.
The 5% figure refers to all plastic discards generated in residential waste, which extends to ALL types of plastic— including disposable plastic pens and cutlery, toothbrushes, cell phone cases, and countless other products that are not recyclable. Almost everywhere we look in our modern lives, we see plastic products. Of ALL the plastic discards created, when the useful lives of these products are over, only 5% are recycled. 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.
We Can and Should Recycle More
We urgently need to stop using all single-use packaging, including plastics. Recycling is not a viable or effective solution for the majority of single-use plastic packaging which cannot and should not be recycled, are highly toxic, are unnecessary, and/or cause problems for other recyclables.
While recycling is not THE solution to our overconsumption—particularly of plastic, the environmental benefits of recycling the few types of plastic packaging we can accept generally outweigh the harms. Recycling plastic packaging can reduce the need to extract fossil fuels to make new plastics and prevent the harm caused when it is burned or buried as waste. Using recycled materials to make new products is one of the best ways to reduce the environmental impacts of products.
Many Changes Are Needed to Improve Plastics Recycling
The plastic bottles and jugs that are being captured in residential recycling programs are being recycled but we aren’t capturing enough of them. According to the Greenpeace report, all US recycling facilities can accept, sort, and sell #1 PET and #2 HDPE plastic bottles and jugs such as your water and soda bottles, laundry jugs, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and more. Those sorted plastics are in demand to go back into the supply chain to make new products and packaging.
US states with bottle deposit policies are recycling over 60% of #1 PET plastic water and soda bottles. States without bottle deposit policies are still throwing away an average of 8 out of every 10 of those bottles, which are in high demand from US manufacturers for making new bottles, fleece clothing, and carpeting. Adopting a nation-wide deposit system along with other supportive policy measures would drive a higher capture rate and get more of those bottles out of the waste and back into the domestic supply chain.
Misleading use of the recycling symbol makes it challenging to figure out what should go in the recycling cart, resulting in lots of non-recyclable plastic trashing the rest of recycling. Most plastics are stamped with a recycling symbol with a number 1 through 7 (the “resin code”) inside it, but unfortunately that has nothing to do with their recyclability—a purposefully misleading effort by producers and consumer brands to give plastic packaging a better image. There are several efforts underway to regulate the use of the chasing arrows so that when consumers see them on a product it actually means they can recycle it. The new labeling law in California, a truth-in-labeling study in Oregon, and a potential update of the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides on how products must be labeled are creating momentum for this needed change!
Recycling by itself will never be enough to solve the plastics crisis. Every major government and leading report on how to reduce the harm of plastics recognizes the need for a full suite of solutions to address plastics, including reducing or eliminating unnecessary single-use plastics, scaling up reuse and refill programs, improving recycling, and innovating new packaging and products. While recycling is only one of the tools in the box, there is much to be done to make recycling the strongest tool it can be, and ensure that it delivers all the community and environmental benefits it has the potential to deliver. In order to achieve that potential, any push for increased recycling of plastic packaging must include improved worker protection for both the formal and informal sector, transparency and responsibility for human and environmental protections in “end markets” (buyers of sorted recyclables), and elimination of toxic additives in all plastic packaging.
Learn more about AMBR’s work to improve authentic plastics recycling while also driving investments into waste reduction, reuse/refill systems, and new product and packaging innovation.