Plastic recycling rates are falling even as production increases, according to a Greenpeace report published on Monday that blasted industry claims to create an efficient, circular economy as “fiction”.
Titled “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” the study found that of the 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by American households in 2021, only 2.4 million tons, or about five percent, were recycled.
After reaching a peak in 2014 of 10 percent, the trend has slowed, especially since China stopped receiving the West’s plastic waste in 2018.
New manufacturing – of non-recycled plastics, that is – is also increasing rapidly as the petrochemical industry expands, driving down costs.
“Industry groups and big companies have been pushing for recycling as a solution,” Greenpeace USA activist Lisa Ramsden told AFP.
“By doing that, they’ve shirked all responsibility” for making sure recycling actually works, she added. She named Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestle as the main offenders.
According to Greenpeace USA’s survey, only two types of plastic are widely accepted at the nation’s 375 recycling facilities.
The first is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is commonly used in water and soda bottles; and the other is high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is seen in milk jugs, shampoo bottles and cleaning product containers.
These are numbered “1” and “2” according to a standardized system where there are seven plastic types.
But being recyclable in theory does not mean that products are recycled in practice.
The report found that PET and HDPE products had actual recycling rates of 20.9 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively—both down slightly from Greenpeace USA’s most recent 2020 survey.
Plastic types “3” to “7” – including children’s toys, plastic bags, product packaging, yogurt and margarine tubs, coffee cups and to-go food containers – were recycled at less than five percent.
Although they often carry the recycling symbol on their labels, products using plastic types “3” through “7” do not meet the Federal Trade Commission’s classification of recyclable.
This is because recycling facilities for these types are not available to a “substantial majority” of the population, defined as 60 percent, and because the collected products are not used in the manufacture or assembly of new items.
According to the report, there were five main reasons why plastic recycling is a “failed concept”.
First, plastic waste is generated in huge quantities and is extremely difficult to collect – as is evident during what the report called ineffective “voluntary clean-up stunts” funded by non-profit organizations such as “Keep America Beautiful.”
Second, even if everything were collected, mixed plastic waste cannot be recycled together, and it would be “functionally impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of consumer plastic waste produced each year,” the report said.
Third, the recycling process itself is environmentally harmful, exposing workers to toxic chemicals and generating microplastics itself.
Fourth, recycled plastic carries toxicity risks through contamination with other types of plastic in collection containers, which prevents it from becoming food-grade material again.
Fifth and finally, the recycling process is prohibitively expensive.
“New plastic competes directly with recycled plastic, and is much cheaper to produce and of higher quality,” the report said.
Ramsden urged companies to support a global plastics agreement, which UN members agreed to create in February, and move towards replenishment and reuse strategies.
“This is actually not a new concept – it’s the way the milkman used to be, it’s the way Coca-Cola used to get their drinks to people. They would drink their drink, return the glass bottle and it would be sanitized and reused,” she said.
Some countries are leading the way, including India, which recently banned 19 single-use plastic items. Austria has set reuse targets of 25 percent by 2025 and at least 30 percent by 2030 for beverage packaging, while Portugal has also set a target of 30 percent by 2030.
Chile moves to phase out disposable cutlery and requires refillable bottles.
Only about 5% of plastic waste is recycled in the US, says a new report
© 2022 AFP
Quote: Plastic recycling remains a ‘myth’: Greenpeace study (2022, October 24) Retrieved October 24, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-10-plastic-recycling-myth-greenpeace.html
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