A report from an environmental nonprofit paints a grim outlook for the future of combating climate change by recycling, concluding that the vast majority of the millions of tons of plastic waste in the U.S. each year ends up in landfills because it simply can’t be recycled.
The study, produced by Greenpeace, found that just 2.4 million tons of the 51 million tons of plastic waste generated last year by U.S. households was recycled.
Americans need to largely forget about the “recycling” portion of the age-old “reduce, reuse, recycle” refrain, Greenpeace argued, because fossil fuels will be needed to produce new plastic no matter how many Americans put their plastic waste in recycling bins.
The issue lies with companies using single-use plastics, the report says, because of the inability to recycle most kinds of plastic, a petrochemical product derived from oil and natural gas that makes up everyday household items.
It’s also likely easier and cheaper for companies to simply purchase new plastic rather than use recycled materials.
“It’s just not economical. It’s really expensive to do all of the collecting, resorting and processing of plastics. New plastic is often less expensive than recycled plastic,” said Lisa Ramsden, a senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace and an author of the report.
“Recycling isn’t the actual issue — plastics are the issue. Plastics are a very problematic material, so we’re really looking to companies that are producing so much single-use plastics to move away from them and switch to systems of refill and reuse.”
For example, Ms. Ramsden said, that would mean Coca-Cola resorting to a system of reusing its bottles or turning away from the plastic material altogether. But that would also almost certainly mean higher prices for consumers.
The petrochemical industry is on pace to become the leading driver of global oil demand, raising questions about green alternatives to plastic.
“The big corporations and the [plastics] industry have poured millions of dollars into this recycling PR campaign, and that’s why we’ve bought into this idea of plastic recycling,” Ms. Ramsden said. “They knew it would never actually work and help combat the plastic waste issue. We need to change the narrative.”
The petrochemical industry has pushed back strongly against the Greenpeace report, citing studies done by industry groups that suggest the recycling rates for some of the most common plastics are far higher rates of 20% to 30%. Industry advocates accused the environmentalist group of being hypocrites.
“Activists at Greenpeace cannot call themselves environmentalists while simultaneously discouraging recycling as part of the solution to our world’s waste problems,” Plastics Industry Association President and CEO Matt Seaholm said. “There is no question that we as a society can and must recycle more. However, their assertions that recycling can’t keep plastic materials within the circular economy is disingenuous and irresponsible.”
Some Capitol Hill lawmakers have suggested other ways to recycle plastic waste, such as a bipartisan bill by Rep. Tim Burchett, Tennessee Republican, to use recycled plastics in asphalt for new roads.
Ms. Ramsden said that idea was missing the point, which is to stop using single-use plastics rather than to find a way for them to be recycled, because it still requires fossil fuels to create recyclable plastics.
A better answer would be forcing the phase out of single-use plastics, she said, which has been implemented by some Democratic-run states and cities and has been pushed — unsuccessfully — by Democrats in Congress.
“Plastics are polluting at every stage of their life cycle, not just after they’re used and then we try to recycle them and they end up in a landfill,” she said. “We don’t think it’s a great solution to take plastic in one form and then turn it into asphalt because that plastic and toxins are still present.”