It took plastic less than 100 years to penetrate every pore of our modern life and score the title of irreplaceable. It has since become an excellent substitute for all kinds of materials, including silk, cotton, natural rubber, ivory, etc. The fact of the matter is plastic is everywhere! We use it in construction, agriculture, textile, food, transport, communication, and much much more.
As Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects, global use of plastic will almost triple by the end of 2060 with only a slight increase in recycling… making many of us wonder about the future effects of plastic on our environment.
The United States Department of Energy (US DOE) states that the volume of plastic waste in the US was 44 million metric tons in 2019, which comes to about 295 lbs per person!
So, what do we do? Fortunately, we are not the only generation to pose this question, as plastic and products industries started promoting plastic recycling as a solution to this problem way back in the 1990s. Sadly, 30 years later, we still face the fact that most US plastic is still not recyclable!
Also, the US plastic recycling rate has declined as it is currently hovering around 5% (2022), it was between 5 and 6% in 2021, while the percentage was at 9.5% in 2014 and 8.7 in 2018.
But our unfortunate situation does not stop there… in 2020, scientists and researchers raised another issue regarding plastic recycling – its toxicity. In fact, the Canadian government published a study in 2021 stating that the toxicity of recycled plastic renders the vast majority of plastic products and packages unusable for food-grade packaging.
What Does Recyclable Mean Exactly?
We’ve been talking a lot about recycling, but what constitutes recyclable according to US law? For an item to be deemed recyclable, at least 60% of people in the US must have access to an established recycling program that can collect, separate and reuse it in the manufacturing (or assembling) process of another item.
The chart below shows the US capacity for plastic collection and recycling into new products:
How To Deem An Item As Recyclable:
|Plastic Item||% of Total (375) U.S. Material Recycling Facilities That Accept
|Access (%) of U.S. Population to Municipal Collection of the Item||U.S. Reprocessing Capacity for Post- Consumer Plastic Type||
Can Product be Labeled as “Recyclable” per U.S. FTC Green Guides or EMF NPE Definition?
|PET#1 Bottles and Jugs||2022: 100%
|2022: 60%||Marginal 2022: 20.9%
|U.S. FTC: Yes EMF NPE: No|
|HDPE#2 Bottles and Jugs||2022: 100%
|2022: 60%||Marginal 2022: 10.3%
|U.S. FTC: Yes EMF NPE: No|
|PP#5 Tubs and Containers||2022: 52%
|2022: 29%||Low/Insufficient <5%||U.S. FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|PP#5 or PS#6 Coffee Pods||2022: 0%
|2022: 0%||Low/Insufficient <5%||U.S. FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Plastic Clamshells||2022: 11%
|2022: 6%||Low/Insufficient <5%||U.S. FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Plastic Cups||2022: 9%
|2022: 5%||Low/Insufficient <5%||U.S. FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Plastic Trays||2022: 5%
|2022: 3%||Low/Insufficient <5%||U.S. FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Plastic Bags and Films||2022: 1%
|2022: 0%||Low/Insufficient <5%||U.S. FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Food Service||2022: 1%
|2022: 1%||Low/Insufficient <5%||U.S. FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Plastic Lids and Caps(Loose)||2022: 2%
|2022: 1%||Low/Insufficient <5%||US FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Plastic Plates||2022: 2%
|2020: 1%||Low/Insufficient <5%||US FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Plastic Cutlery, Straws and Stirrers||2022: 0%
|2022: 0%||Low/Insufficient <5%||US FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
|Plastic Food Wrappers and Pouches||2022: 0%
|2022: 0.0%||Low/Insufficient <5%||US FTC: No EMF NPE: No|
Plastic Industry Facts
Here are some of the latest statistics and future projections in the plastic industry:
- The total value of the global plastic market in 2022 was $695 billion (with projections of it reaching $811.6 million in 2028)
- The plastic market’s annual growth rate is 3.7%
- Based on this current annual growth rate, it is estimated that the plastic market value will reach $885 billion in 2032
- The plastic market size in the US in 2022 was $90 billion
- In 2015 there were 407 million metric tons of plastic produced globally, while 302 million tons were discarded as waste. According to the statistics, it was estimated that the global production of plastic will rise to an incredible 1124 million tonnes annually by 2050
- Bioplastic production is predicted to reach “only” 2.6 million tonnes by the end of 2023
- The plastic industry is the 8th largest in the US, employing 1.5 million people
- US households generate around 51 million metric tons of plastic waste annually
- Since new plastic is cheaper and of higher quality as compared to recycled one, product companies mostly continue to buy new plastic instead
- There is an estimated 30 million tons of plastic waste in seas and oceans and 109 million tons in rivers. Plastic waste in seas and oceans will continue to rise for decades to come even if we start managing it better due to such a significant build-up in the river systems across the globe
- It is estimated that improving the global plastic management system would cost upwards of $30 billion a year
- 85% of all plastic produced for packaging ends up in landfills
- Plastic bottles take upwards of 450 years to degrade
Plastic Recycling Facts
Now that we’ve covered some global plastic industry facts, it’s time to dive into the world of recycling! Here are the latest plastic recycling stats:
- The plastic recycling market was valued at $42.3 billion in 2022 (forecasted to reach $77.8billion in 2031)
- With an annual growth rate of 4.8%
- Globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, 22% is mismanaged, 19% is incinerated, and 49% ends up in landfills
- In the US, only 5% of plastic waste is recycled, 4% is mismanaged, 19% is incinerated, and as much as 72% ends up in landfills
- Plastic recycling facilities operate at 60% capacity. What this means is they could recycle a lot more material, but there is a massive problem with sorting and collecting it
- In the US, only about 5% of all recyclable plastic is being collected
- Sorting plastics wastes plastics! Upwards of 15% of all PET bottles collected for recycling never come out the other side since they don’t get adequately sorted
- There are less than ten chemical recycling facilities in the US and they manage to recycle “only” 0.24% of the 51 million tonnes of plastic waste US households generate
- Around 30% of recyclable plastic PET#1 bottles will be wasted during the actual recycling process, as this process also produces plastic waste
- The vast majority of recycled plastic products can not be used for food-grade packaging due to the toxicity risks
Why Mechanical and Chemical Recycling Fails?
It’s no secret that mechanical and chemical plastic waste recycling has largely failed. It failed for of many different reasons, but the main ones being (1) plastic waste is challenging to collect, (2) sorting it is a nightmare and a process that is very wasteful, (3) the recycling process is harmful to the environment, (4) it also produces toxins and contaminants, (5) and, at the end of the day, recycling is just not as economical as producing new plastic items.
Other recyclable items, such as glass, metal, and paper, don’t typically come with these problems as they are recyclable at a much higher rate.
Toxicity is one of the major problems of recyclable plastic items as it prevents them from food-grade usage. Not only that, but most would agree that recycled plastic will never be used as a food container of any sort.
Finally, a vast quantity of plastic items being produced today is simply not recyclable!
Banning Single-Use Plastic?
We are at a crucial moment in history when it comes to plastic use/waste, and we must decide whether we’ll continue to follow this “failed” mainstream recycling narrative or consider looking the other way – making efforts to ban single-use plastics and turn our attention to reusable and refillable packaging systems; or even move to package-free products.
5 Main Reasons Plastic Recycling Fails
As mentioned, US households created a staggering 51 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2021… Out of which only 2.4 tons were recycled.
The government tried to move the needle by introducing the Recycling Demand Champion campaign in 2017, and even though the program was deemed a success, it still only accounted for only 0.14% of total plastic waste being recycled that year.
So, why is this number so low? Why is plastic recycling such a difficult undertaking? We’ll give you the answer to these questions in the following paragraphs.
Plastic Waste is Difficult to Collect
Single-use plastic sometimes feels like specks of dust being spewed from retail stores and fast food restaurants to over 330 million US citizens nationwide each year. There is so much plastic being pumped out it’s simply not possible to collect it all!
There was even a lawsuit in California dealing with the issue of recycling plastic bags. Even though plastic bags are recyclable, collecting them is one of the main problems here. The APR issued a statement saying, “Reusable plastic bags are recyclable. The issue is simply that they are difficult to channel back to recyclers.”
Only 5% of plastic waste gets collected for to be recycled!
The APR further blames lack of collection for the overall low plastic recycling rates in the US (approximately 5% in 2021), stating that recyclers “can only recycle what’s made available to them” 84 and claiming that “The biggest issue is that our collection infrastructure is based on the 1970s and 1980s technology. Plastic recyclers operate at about 60% capacity today. We can recycle a lot more material. We can’t get it. We can recycle anything if it’s collected and sorted properly.”
Mixed Plastic Waste can’t be Recycled Together
Though we’ve deemed collecting as one of the major issues with plastic recycling, spending billions of taxpayers’ dollars on increasing the collecting capacities could turn out to be a waste of money. Let me explain… Even if all plastic waste were successfully collected, it would be virtually impossible to sort these trillions of pieces into separate types of plastic to be processed.
There are thousands of different plastic types with different chemical compositions and characteristics. Different plastics have different melting points, dyes, and colorants. Different chemical additives give plastics specific features, such as flexibility or rigidity.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles are made by blow-molding and cannot be recycled with PET#1 cups, trays, or clamshells, which are made by thermoforming and are a different PET#1 material. Green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles.
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One of the successful examples of combating this issue comes from Japan, where all beverage companies have voluntarily agreed to use only clear PET#1 since 1992. Another extreme example is South Korea, where colored PET#1 was banned in 2020. Other types of plastics, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low-density polyethylene (LDPE#4), polypropylene (PP #5), and polystyrene (PS #6), all must be separated for recycling.
Sorting plastics can also waste plastics. The Recycling Partnership admits that “in today’s system, upwards of 15% of all the PET bottles that enter a MRF never come out the other side,” meaning they are not sorted adequately into PET bales but are disposed of in the MRF contamination stream.
According to a 2022 report by the NRDC and a recent statement by the ACC’s VP of Plastics, only a handful of chemical recycling facilities are operating in the US today.
Greenpeace USA estimates the total capacity of the chemical recycling facilities to be about 121,600 tons/year – which is only 0.24% of the 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by US households each year.
That’s hardly the “massive wave of projects” the plastics industry claims. Notably, there’s no proof that household plastic waste is being reprocessed at these facilities. In fact, the Nexus pyrolysis plant in Georgia has admitted that it can’t process much of the mixed household plastic waste and primarily uses “post-commercial and post-industrial” plastic film waste.
Plastic Recycling is Wasteful, Polluting and a Fire Hazard
Even if we somehow managed to collect and sort all plastic waste material, we’d be faced with yet another problem – the reprocessing of plastic waste itself makes plastic waste! In their announcement about the construction of a new PET#1 bottle recycling facility in Mexico, Coca-Cola and ALPLA state that 30% of plastic PET#1 bottles received will be wasted. This is consistent with the 2018 National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) report on PET#1 beverage bottle recycling, which stated that about a third of the collected bottle material is disposed of due to contamination and process losses of.
Workers who operate in these recycling facilities are also in danger. Researchers at Leeds University in the United Kingdom reviewed over 4,000 sources of information to evaluate the risks of (1) toxics in recycled plastics and (2) toxic exposure to workers and communities in plastic recycling operations. Workers were found to be exposed to toxins in mechanical plastic recycling operations.
Canada’s National Observer reported in 2021, “Most plastic products contain toxic chemicals added to give plastic desirable traits, like flexibility or non-stick properties. When they are broken down during recycling or incineration, these toxins – everything from endocrine disrupters to cancer-causing chemicals – can escape recycling facilities and landfills to contaminate people and the environment.”
Plastic is highly flammable, so plastic recycling can be dangerous to neighboring communities due to the risk of fires at the recycling facilities, which can release toxins into the air.
Recycled Plastic Often has Huge Toxicity Risks
Unfortunately for us, plastic is not inert like metal and glass. Plastic products themselves may contain toxic additives or absorb chemicals, and these products are generally collected in curbside bins that may be filled with problem materials like plastic containers used to store pesticides or motor oil.
According to a report published in late 2021 by the Canadian government, toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging.
Plastic Recycling is not Economical
Collecting, sorting, trucking, and safely reprocessing plastic waste has always been costly. The diesel price jump in 2022 made the situation even worse; in May of 2022, companies that also do their trucking waste reported that “moving it became 2-3 times more expensive than it was just six months previously.” The biggest issue recycled plastic faces are that new plastic is simply cheaper to produce and buy and is of higher quality. Not only that, as the petrochemical industry advances, new plastic will continue to improve and drop in price, so it’s tough to justify going with the recycled one.
The basic economic premise of the “circular economy of plastics” is false. The Ellen McArthur Foundation claimed in 2016 that “After a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or USD 80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.” But they produced this estimation by multiplying the price of new plastic by the amount of plastic waste generated yearly. This is like equating the value of old shoes to the cost of a new pair. In fact, mixed plastic waste has zero negative value because there is a disposal cost to get rid of it.
Since new plastic is cheaper and higher quality than recycled plastic, product companies will continue to buy new plastic instead. At the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly in early 2022, Unilever admitted that it wouldn’t increase its use of recycled plastic if the price were much higher than that of new plastic.
US Plastic Recycling Capacity
|USEPA 2018 Solid Waste Data||Total Post-Consumer Plastic Waste (Thousand Tons)||Total Plastics in Containers and Packaging (C&P) (Thousand Tons)|
|Resin type||Total Plastic Waste||Total Recycled||Total % Recycled||C&P Plastic Waste||C&P Recycled||C&P Recycled|
GreenPeace report – “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again”, 2022 Update