hdpe bottles being sorted
Photo by Megan Smalley

Industry responds to Greenpeace report alleging most plastics are not recyclable

Plastics and recycling organizations say recycling is essential to plastics’ circularity while acknowledging that the recycling rate must improve.

October 26, 2022

The Greenpeace USA report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” released Monday, Oct. 24, concludes that most plastic generated in the U.S. cannot be recycled, to which the plastics and recycling industries respond that recycling is essential to plastics’ circularity while acknowledging that the recycling rate must improve.

According to the Greenpeace report, no type of plastic packaging in the U.S. meets the definition of recyclable used by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy (EMF NPE) Initiative, which calls for a 30 percent threshold “across multiple regions, collectively representing at least 400 million inhabitants.”

According to Greenpeace, two of the most common plastics in the U.S. that often are considered recyclable—polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), typically in the form of bottles and jugs—fall well below the EMF NPE threshold, only achieving reprocessing rates of 20.9 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively. For every other type of plastic, the reprocessing rate is less than 5 percent.

However, Greenpeace’s PET and HDPE bottle recycling rates differ significantly from those reported in the 2020 U.S. Post-consumer Plastic Recycling Data Report, which calculates the PET bottle recycling rate at 27.1 percent and the HDPE bottle recycling rate at 28.8 percent. However, these figures remain below the 30 percent EMF NPE threshold.

According to Greenpeace, while PET and HDPE previously were thought of as recyclable, its report finds that being accepted by a recycling processing plant does not necessarily result in them being recycled— effectively negating the recyclability claim.

The nonprofit also claims that U.S. households generated an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, and only 2.4 million tons were recycled.

According to the report, which updates a 2020 report, mechanical and chemical recycling of end-of-life plastics fail because they are extremely difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, environmentally harmful to reprocess, often made of and contaminated by toxic materials and not economical to recycle.

Greenpeace says its original survey of acceptance of plastic items at U.S. residential material recovery facilities, or MRFs, has been continually updated since its creation in October 2019 and was reverified in August 2022. The survey was performed and verified by technically qualified volunteers of The Last Beach Cleanup: two registered professional chemical engineers and a recycling industry expert. The acceptance information was found in the public domain and is publicly shared to promote transparency and establish a traceable account of facts related to “recyclable” claims and labels for plastic products. 

Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA senior plastics campaigner, says, “We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It is time for corporations to turn off the plastic tap. Instead of continuing to greenwash and mislead the American public, industry should stand on the right side of history this November and support an ambitious Global Plastics Treaty that will finally end the age of plastic by significantly decreasing production and increasing refill and reuse.”

In addition to adopting the Global Plastics Treaty, the Greenpeace report urges companies to take several steps to mitigate the systemic problems associated with plastic recycling, including phasing out single-use plastics and committing to standardized reusable packaging.

Industry response

Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association (Plastics), Washington, responded to the Greenpeace report by saying the plastics industry agrees plastic recycling must increase. “The difference between our industry and Greenpeace is that we understand the necessary action needed to preserve a material that saves lives and improves our overall safety and quality of life through responsible use and recycling instead of creating false narratives.”

He also says, “The activists at Greenpeace cannot call themselves environmentalists while simultaneously discouraging recycling as part of the solution to our world’s waste problems. There is no question that we as a society can and must recycle more. However, their assertions that recycling can’t keep plastic materials within the circular economy is disingenuous and irresponsible. Recycling is real, and the claims that it can’t ever work, made in this document, will likely result in unnecessary waste and public reaction that could actually cause greater environmental harm.

“The claim that ‘mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste has largely failed’ is a desperate attempt to counter the billions of dollars in investments the plastics and recycling industries have made into new technologies and solutions to make products more recyclable,” Seaholm continues.

He adds that the Greenpeace document fails to mention the value that plastic packaging provides, such as reducing food waste and food waste emissions. “Especially during a time of heightened food uncertainty, global food shortages and greater demand, plastic must be embraced for its ability to build a reliable, sustainable food supply chain across the world economy,” Seaholm writes.

He adds, “Another example is the essential role plastics play in the manufacture, transport and administration of health care, vaccines and immunizations, successfully contributing to global scientific advancement.”

Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, Washington, in response to the Greenpeace report, says, "We agree that plastic recycling isn’t a panacea for plastics waste. However, the reality is that the world won’t just stop making plastic tomorrow, so what do we do today? We must partner to do the hard but impactful work of building a better system; one that focuses on reducing, reusing and then recycling all we can. That’s why The Recycling Partnership remains committed to working with all stakeholders, including companies that produce plastics, to make recycling better. Together we can deliver a transparent and accountable system that delivers recycling’s enormous economic and environmental benefits.”

In an essay posted in July of this year to The Recycling Partnership’s website, Harrison writes, “Frustrated that recycling isn’t fixing the world’s waste problem? Here’s the truth: as it’s built now, it never will. If we think we can just keep making and buying whatever we want without any planning for what happens when we’re done with that thing, recycling will never keep pace and we’ll always be let down.”

The Recycling Partnership suggests five steps to make a meaningful difference in recycling in the U.S.: 

  1. invest $17 billion in the U.S. recycling system;
  2. ensure that everyone has access to curbside recycling;
  3. engage the public about recycling a range of materials;
  4. design products and packaging to be recyclable; and
  5. pass public policy that holds the value chain responsible for progress.

Joshua Baca, vice president of Plastics for the American Chemistry Council, Washington, also released a statement commenting on the Greenpeace report: “America’s plastic makers are on the cusp of a circularity revolution, ushered in by innovation and billions in investment in recycling technologies. We are accelerating the shift to greater plastics circularity by scaling up sortation, advanced recycling and new partnerships that enable used plastic to be remade again and again. Just last week saw a $100 million investment to help sort more plastic so it gets recycled, and another company commit to triple the amount of circular and renewable solutions to 3 million metric tons annually.

“Greenpeace and its allies are advocating for the elimination of plastic, a material that makes modern life possible, lowers carbon emissions compared to alternatives, keeps our food fresher and safer, enables renewable wind and solar energy and reduces energy use in our homes and vehicles. Greenpeace’s extreme views are misleading, out of touch and misguided.”

Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), Washington, says, "The report states that the U.S. has a 5 percent recycling rate, but that can be misleading. It all depends on what the denominator is. When determining recycling rates, we study the amount of consumer-facing packaging produced. Greenpeace is using all plastics created as a denominator. It is important to note that these statistics include plastic items such as durable goods, playground equipment, even toilet seats, that are meant to last many years, as well as nondurable goods not intended for recycling, such as garbage bags.

"Consumer packaging is made mostly of PET, HDPE and PP [polypropylene], used in a packaging context, combined they have a 21 percent recycling rate. Reclaimers currently have the capacity to double that number. They need more supply. Misleading reports like this, which can discourage consumers from recycling, are not only destructive to our communities, but also to the environment and the economy," he adds.

The APR recently pushed back on misleading plastics recycling data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a report titled “Recommit, Reimagine, Rework Recycling."

The APR says its report presents an important clarification on data provided by the EPA for the discussion on U.S. recycling rates, explaining that 80 percent of rigid plastic packaging is made from either PET, HDPE or PP. According to the APR report, 21 percent of these types of plastic are recycled based on EPA data. However, according to the EPA’s 2018 figures, the latest available, the overall plastic recycling rate was only 9 percent. The APR notes that, as with the Greenpeace report, the EPA’s statistics “include containers, packaging and durable goods meant to last many years as well as nondurable goods not intended for recycling like garbage bags.”

*This article was updated Oct. 26 to add comments from the APR.