Do you recycle? Feel good? You've been duped.
I had no idea China wouldn't take our sheet anymore! That seems unfair. We happily accepted COVID from them. Where's the reciprocity?
Meanwhile, I still want to recycle to feel better about myself and of course look good to the neighbors!
U.S. Recycles 5% of Plastic Waste, Studies Show
Plastics use has increased, but recycling infrastructure, technology and education haven’t kept pace, say environmental and waste-management experts
Plastic is used in items as diverse as disposable syringes, personal protective equipment, utensils and water bottles, but recycling hasn’t kept pace.
By Talal Ansari, WSJ
Updated May. 5, 2022 8:32 pm ET
Only 5% of plastic waste in the U.S. is being recycled, according to an Energy Department report.
The report, released this week, found that roughly 86% of the 44 million metric tons of plastic waste managed in 2019 was sent to a landfill. Of that, 9% was combusted and 5% was recycled.
Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, environmental advocacy groups behind another report released on Wednesday, found that there was a 5% to 6% recycling rate for post-consumer plastic waste in the U.S. for 2021.
The reasons are many, according to environmental and waste-management experts, and include population growth, the desire for single-use plastics, and a dwindling international demand for recyclables.
Cities and counties around the U.S. suspended parts of their recycling programs in 2019 after China tightened restrictions around recyclable imports. Historically, China has been an important player in the plastics and recycling industries. When the country stopped taking imports of plastic waste in 2018, recycling markets in the U.S. and other countries were left in disarray.
“Without the Chinese, we in the rich world don’t have recycling options that are cost competitive with landfill disposal,” said Christopher Field, the Perry L. McCarty director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
While some states and municipalities are searching for new, long-term solutions, it is a complicated and often expensive path.
Demand to use recycled plastic in products is low, which in turn makes prices of recycled plastic low and doesn’t motivate collection and sorting of plastic waste, according to Paschalis Alexandridis, a distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
“The past couple of years included major disruptions due to China’s National Sword program and due to Covid,” Dr. Alexandridis said. The pandemic perhaps resulted in more waste from homes, more packaging and a lot more medical waste, which doesn’t get recycled, he said.
Plastic use, overall, has grown exponentially and has become essential in many industries. In the medical field, plastic is used in everything from disposable syringes and blood bags to personal protective equipment. “Plastic foams are thermal insulators, and lightweight engineering plastics contribute to significant energy savings and reduced CO2 emissions,” said Dr. Alexandridis.
Margaret J. Sobkowicz, associate professor of plastics engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said better technologies to sort material, better public education about proper waste management, and stronger regulations against improper disposal of goods that have intrinsic value would help improve the percentage of recycled plastics.
For environmental groups, however, recycling doesn’t go far enough.
Jan Dell, an independent engineer and founder of the Last Beach Cleanup, said there is no circular economy of plastics.
“Plastics and products companies co-opted the success of other material recycling and America’s desire to recycle to create the myth that plastic is recyclable,” Ms. Dell said in a written statement about the group’s report. The failure of plastic recycling, the group’s report says, is in contrast to paper, 66% of which is recycled.
The Plastics Industry Association, a trade group, said the report “blindly estimates current recycling rates based on outdated information and irrelevant data,” adding that the report didn’t use proper methodology and cherry-picked data. “Continued attacks on plastics will neither support healthier end markets nor ensure that all consumers can access the things they need every day,” it said.
Bales of recycled plastic ready for shipping at the Friedman Recycling Plant in Albuquerque, N.M.
PHOTO: JIM THOMPSON/ZUMA PRESS
California’s attorney general said last month that his office was investigating Exxon Mobil Corp. and other fossil-fuel and petrochemical companies, accusing them of misleading the public about the effects of plastic pollution.
“The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta. “This first-of-its-kind investigation will examine the fossil-fuel industry’s role in creating and exacerbating the plastics pollution crisis—and what laws, if any, have been broken in the process.”
Exxon spokeswoman Julie King said at the time that the company rejects the attorney general’s allegations. She said Exxon shares society’s concerns about plastic waste and is working on recycling and other waste-management technologies.