The recycling of plastic is practically impossible, and the problem is continuing to worsen

The large majority of plastic that people put into recycling containers is bound for landfills, or worse, as indicated by a Greenpeace report on the state of plastic recycling in the U.S. The report alludes to separate data published this May, which showed that plastic recycled into new products had decreased significantly to around 5%. It is anticipated that this number will decline as more plastic is produced.

Greenpeace discovered that not a single piece of plastic – not even soda bottles, one of the most commonly found items in recycling bins – meets the criteria to be classified as “recyclable” according to standards set by the Foundation New Plastic Economy Initiative. For plastic to be considered recyclable, it must have a recycling rate of 30%. However, no plastic has ever been recycled and reused at a rate close to 30%.

The problem with plastic just keeps getting worse

says Lisa Ramsden of Greenpeace USA. “More of it is being produced, and an even smaller percentage is being recycled. The industry plans to increase plastic production by three times by the year 2050.” unless we take drastic action, this crisis will only worsen.

Waste management experts say that plastic is expensive to collect and sort. With thousands of different types of plastic, it cannot be easy to recycle them. Also, plastic degrades after one or two uses. Greenpeace discovered that the more plastic is reused, the more toxic it becomes.

The new plastic is cheap and easy to produce

However, this results in few markets for plastic trash- something the public wants to avoid hearing about.

A few years ago, when Southern Oregon Sanitation told customers they could no longer recycle plastic trash like milk containers and detergent bottles – only soda bottles and jugs – people were upset. They wanted to be able to put all of their strawberry containers, bags, yogurt cups, and other plastic trash in their recycling bin. 

Carpenter stated that individuals need to be made aware that much of the material they throw away is in landfills. He explained that recycling facilities are not equipped to recycle certain materials, so they end up in landfill sites.

The message about what to do with plastic often needs to be clarified for the public, as different local communities and companies often have conflicting instructions. Carpenter says they decided to be honest with their customers instead of continuing to tell them that plastic is being recycled into new products.

The Truth about Greenwashing

“It’s easier from a political standpoint to simply state, ‘Gosh, we’re going to recycle everything and think we can get it done,’ and then act like the problem doesn’t exist,” said Carpenter regarding other companies. “That’s the epitome of greenwashing.”

While most recycling facilities in the United States accept plastic containers marked with a “number 5s” – indicating that they are made of polypropylene, the research found that less than 5% of this type of plastic is being reprocessed. The report, conducted by Greenpeace, found that most of these plastic cups and containers end up in landfills – even though 52% of recycling facilities across the country are equipped to recycle them.

The discrepancy between low reprocessing rates and plans from the oil and gas industry is raising eyebrows. Industry lobbyists say they’re confident they can recycle every bit of plastic they produce into something new by 2040. However, when NPR interviewed, industry officials could not explain how they would achieve a 100 percent recycling rate

Plastics Industry Misled Public About Recyclability for Decades, According to NPR Report

As early as the 1970s and 1980s, industry officials knew that plastic could not be economically recycled, yet they misled the public about its recyclability, according to an NPR investigative report from 2020.

 The American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for the chemical industry, did not respond to NPR’s request for comment on the Greenpeace report. After publication, the vice president of plastics for the group sent an email to NPR, calling Greenpeace’s views “inaccurate, out of touch and misguided.”

He noted that the industry is convinced it is “on the verge of a revolution in recycling plastic” by “increasing sorting, advanced recycling, and new partnerships that allow used plastic to be reused repeatedly.”

As more people become aware of the damage single-use plastics can cause to the environment, some environmentalists and lawmakers are pushing for legislation to ban them. In addition, “bottle bills” are being proposed to incentivize customers to recycle their plastic bottles. The legislation has increased recycling rates for plastic bottles in Oregon and Michigan, though it has been met with strong opposition from the plastic and oil industries. 

Ramsden stated that the best way to handle the plastic problem is to switch to systems of reuse and refilling. He believes that now is the time for companies to stop using plastic altogether.

After years of trying to recycle plastic, many environmental groups have given up hope that the public will see it for what it is- garbage. They are urging people to ask themselves if there is something else they could use  instead of plastic.

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