According to a new study by two environmental groups focused on raising awareness of plastic pollution.
The report was released Wednesday, the day New Jersey’s ban on single-use bags went into effect, which one of the authors, Judith Enck, said would bring almost immediate change for the state.
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“A lot of laws are put in place and it takes years to see an effect,” said Enck, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official and current visiting professor at Bennington College in Vermont. “You will literally see less litter like bags in the trees and on the streets in the next few months because of New Jersey’s plastic bag law. There will be a visible difference.
Enck is also part of Beyond Plastics, a Bennington College-based group formed in 2019 that seeks to build an “effective anti-plastic movement.” Beyond Plastics partnered for the study with The Last Beach Cleanup, a California-based nonprofit created the same year by Jan Dell, a chemical engineer, to educate the public.
“The current plastic recycling rate in the United States in 2021 is estimated to be between 5% and 6%,” the report said. “When accounting for additional losses that are not measured, such as plastic waste collected under the guise of ‘recycling’ that is burned, the true plastic recycling rate in the United States could be even lower.”
Enck said the report fills a gap left by the EPA’s inability to update its own recycling numbers. The agency last reported an 8.7% recycling rate in 2020, but that was based on an estimate of 2018 figures. The EPA did not release an update as expected in November.
To fill the void, the two groups pulled data from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and other “waste engineering experts”. The authors say the public generally believes that recycling rates are much higher.
During this time, plastic has become ubiquitous. Consider that Americans generated about 60 pounds of plastic waste per person in 1980, according to the report. In 2018, it was up to 218 pounds, a total increase of 263%.
In reality, Enck said, most municipalities only recycle #1 and #2 plastics, as listed on the bottom of containers. Philadelphia (and most municipalities) lists the types of plastics residents can place in recycling bins on their websites.
#1 containers are made of polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET or PETE. It is commonly used to make water and soda bottles. #2 containers are made of high density polyethylene or HDPE and are typically used to make milk jugs and shampoo and detergent bottles.
However, there are seven types of plastics that can be labeled with the recycling symbol. Residents often mix these with #1 and #2 plastics, contaminating loads that sorting facilities cannot consolidate for recycling. Thus, contaminated loads are generally grouped together to be landfilled or incinerated.
Plastic bags are not accepted for municipal collection and also block machines at recycling facilities. Styrofoam, yogurt and microwaveable meal containers are generally not recycled. Soft plastic wrap, a rapidly growing commodity used to make sealable granola pouches, large pet food bags and packaging for hundreds of other products, is also not recyclable.
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Enck, however, doesn’t want people to get discouraged. “We absolutely want people to keep recycling,” she said.
Enck notes that paper and cardboard have a recycling rate of around 68%. Metals, such as aluminum cans, and glass, such as bottles, also have much higher recycling rates than plastics, she said.
Americans were tricked into thinking their plastics were being recycled because they were shipped to China for so many years, she said. But China stopped accepting American and European plastics in 2018. Countries then started shipping to Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, until those countries balked.
Meanwhile, municipalities and carriers have scrambled to find new domestic markets and retool facilities to better sort recycling loads contaminated with non-recyclable materials.
“The problem is not with the recycling concept or process, but with the material itself. It is plastic recycling that has always failed,” the report says. “Even when millions of tons of plastic waste were still exported to China every year, plastic recycling never reached 10%.
“Despite the egregious failure of recycling plastics, the plastics, packaging and product industries have waged a decades-long campaign of misinformation to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable.”
This article has been clarified to say that 5% to 6% of the 46 million tons of plastic waste generated each year in the United States is recycled. Previously he said it was from all the plastic generated.