U.S. Plastic Recycling Rate Projected to Drop to 4.4% in 2018

Guest post courtesy of Plastic Pollution Coalition

A projection by Plastic Pollution Coalition calls recycling a false solution to the global plastic pollution problem.

Plastic Pollution Coalition has published a new engineering estimate showing plummeting recycling rates for plastic in United States. Author Jan Dell, a chemical engineer, used U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data and industry data to estimate the U.S. plastic recycling rate will sink from 9.1% in 2015 to 4.4% in 2018. Dell estimated the recycling rate could drop as low as 2.9% in 2019 if plastic waste import bans are adopted by more countries in Asia.

The engineering estimate shows four factors contributing to the drop in recycling rates: 1. Plastic waste generation is increasing in the U.S. 2. Exports counted as recycled have cratered due to China’s ban. 3. Costs of recycling are increasing since many trucks are needed to collect the widely dispersed waste. 4. Plastic production expansion is keeping the prices of new plastics comparatively low. These factors work against the key premise that waste plastic will someday have sufficient value to drive reclaiming it rather than disposing of it.

“It’s been frequently said: a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome,” said Dell. “We’ve seen promises, goals, ambitions, and aims from companies for nearly 30 years to increase recycled content and reduce the number of plastic bags they hand out. During that time, plastic use and pollution has increased as well-documented by Jenna Jambeck, Roland Geyer, and other researchers. The projected <5% U.S. plastic recycling rate in 2018 should be a wake-up call to the false promise that the existing voluntary, economic-driven U.S. recycling system is a credible solution to plastic pollution.”

The United States ranks 20th on the list of countries contributing to plastic pollution in the ocean with an estimated 88 to 242 million pounds/year of plastic marine debris. The annual International Coastal Cleanup confirmed the evidence of plastic pollution on U.S. coasts in 2017 when more than 3.7 million pounds of trash, the majority of it plastic, was collected by 209,643 people on a single day. The global movement Break Free From Plastic provides a Brand Audit Toolkit for people participating in cleanups to audit and identify the brands and corporations responsible for plastic pollution.

“Recycling as the solution to plastic pollution is a myth,” said Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition. “Recycling is the end point of the production chain, and it does not work without infrastructure and operational systems, which many places in the U.S. and world, simply do not have. In the U.S., industry looks to recycling as a catch-all, when really we must stop using plastic as a material for single-use. Corporations must step up to change their packaging because they are responsible for 100 percent of the damage it does. It’s time for all of us to work together and demand a systems shift away from ‘disposable’  toward nontoxic reusables.”

Plastic Pollution Coalition is a global alliance of over 750 organizations, businesses, and leaders working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment. Since its founding in 2009, PPC has created a platform to amplify common messaging and best practices, including production of TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch in 2010 and ongoing work to foster solutions-based collaboration between members.Through short-film projects like the 2016 "Open Your Eyes" video featuring Jeff Bridges, community building across national borders, and engaging work on policy change, PPC is moving the needle with its coalition members to reduce the worldwide dependence on single-use plastic.