On January 5, 2023, AMBR submitted a letter on waste management and reducing plastic waste to Senator Merkley, Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee. A copy of the letter is included below.
Dear Senator Merkley,
We appreciate your leadership on issues related to addressing the plastic pollution crisis, including your lead sponsorship of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (S. 984) and your recent efforts to bring national attention to these issues during the subcommittee hearing on plastic waste. However, as we work in partnership with policymakers and advocates to advance these issues, we are concerned about some of the misleading messages around recycling that are being used in an effort to combat the plastic crisis.
In your opening subcommittee remarks, you stated that only a small amount of the plastic that is placed in the recycling bin is actually recycled. Unfortunately, these misconceptions have been perpetuated by media confusion and misinterpretation of numbers in a recent Greenpeace report. This, in turn, 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. 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 does not mean we have a recycling crisis—this means we have a plastic crisis. Companies simply produce too much non-recyclable plastic and take little-to-no responsibility for plastic pollution and waste.
As recyclers, we see every day 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. However, while plastic proliferation needs to be addressed with comprehensive policy solutions, this does not mean our recycling system is broken.
Recycling is not a viable or effective solution for the majority of plastic products or 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 packagings such as #1 PET water and soda bottles 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. According to Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, using recycled materials to make new products is one of the best ways to reduce the environmental impacts of products.
The plastic bottles and jugs that are being captured in residential recycling programs are being recycled, but we are not 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 nationwide 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 for consumers to know what should go in the recycling cart, resulting in lots of non-recyclable plastic trashing the rest of recycling. 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 California labeling law, a truth-in-labeling study in Oregon, and an 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. We need comprehensive policy 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.
Again, we appreciate your leadership on these issues and thank you for bringing much-needed national attention to the plastic crisis. You can learn more about our work to improve authentic plastics recycling while driving investments into waste reduction, reuse/refill systems, and new product and packaging innovation. We are happy to discuss any of these issues with you – please feel free to reach out with questions or thoughts.
Co-President of Eureka Recycling & National Coordinator of AMBR