Study claims US plastic recycling rate is plunging

Study claims US plastic recycling rate is plunging

The Plastic Pollution Coalition says rate will drop to 4.4 percent in 2018.

October 5, 2018

The Plastic Pollution Coalition, Berkeley, California, has published a report contending the recycling rate for plastic in the United States is plummeting. Author Jan Dell, who the coalition describes as a chemical engineer, used United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other industry data to estimate the U.S. plastic recycling rate will sink from 9.1 percent in 2015 to 4.4 percent in 2018, says the organization. Dell estimates the recycling rate could drop to as low as 2.9 percent in 2019 if plastic scrap import bans are adopted by more countries in Asia.

The report says four major factors are contributing to its estimated drop in recycling rates:

  • Plastic scrap generation is increasing in the U.S.
  • Exports counted as recycled have cratered because of China’s ban.
  • Costs of recycling are increasing because more trucks are needed to collect discarded materials. 
  • Plastic production expansion is keeping the prices of new plastics comparatively low. These factors work against the premise that plastic scrap will someday have sufficient value to drive reclaiming it rather than disposing of it.

“Einstein famously said that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome,” Dell says. “We’ve seen promises, goals, ambitions and aims from companies for nearly 30 years to increase recycled content and reduce the number of plastic bags they hand out. During that time, plastic use and pollution has increased as [has been] well documented by Jenna Jambeck, Roland Geyer and other researchers. The projected less than 5 percent U.S. plastic recycling rate in 2018 should be a wake-up call to the false promise that the existing voluntary, economic-driven U.S. recycling system is a credible solution to plastic pollution.”

The U.S. ranks 20th on the list of countries contributing to plastic pollution in the ocean with an estimated 88 to 242 million pounds per year of plastic marine debris, according to the coalition. In an annual International Coastal Cleanup event on U.S. coasts in 2017, more than 200,000 volunteers collected more than 3.7 million pounds of trash in one day, the majority of it plastic, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

“Recycling as the solution to plastic pollution is a myth,” Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, says. “Recycling is the end point of the production chain, and it does not work without infrastructure and operational systems, which many places in the U.S. and world, simply do not have. In the U.S., industry looks to recycling as a catch-all, when really, we must stop using plastic as a material for single use. Corporations must step up to change their packaging because they are responsible for 100 percent of the damage it does. It’s time for all of us to work together and demand a systems shift away from ‘disposable’ toward nontoxic reusables.”

The Plastic Pollution Coalition describes itself as a “global alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses, and policymakers working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, waterways and oceans and the environment.”