U.S. Plastic Recycling Rates Are Even Worse Than We Thought

Yout’s well established that the state of U.S. plastics recycling is dismal. But plastic waste experts, who have long cautioned that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) purported recycling rate was overestimated, now say that the country is poised for a reckoning.

In 2018, the last time the agency analyzed where the nation’s trash ends up, the plastics recycling rate came in at about 9%, meaning that more than 91% of plastics generated that year were put in a landfill or incinerated for energy. The report of the Bennington College-affiliated environmental projects Beyond Plastics and Last Beach Cleanup shows that the plastics recycling rate for 2021 is now below 5%. This cuts nearly half of the old estimate.

The U.S. recently had difficulties offloading its plastic waste to other countries, which is a key factor in the recent drop. The United State’s recycling rate—as calculated by both the EPA and the report’s authors—is the sum of its plastic waste exports plus whatever gets recycled domestically. The chart shows that exports experienced a boom, during which China took in billions of dollars of this stuff, until 2018 when it banned most imports.

China boosted U.S. recycling rates during waste trade boom from 6% in 2000 up to 9% by 2015. According to EPA data. But since 2018, no country has replaced all the slack left from China’s ban.

The researchers surmise that U.S. incineration capacity hasn’t increased and its recycling capacity has ticked up only marginally in the last three years. Meanwhile, they infer that the amount of plastic produced in the U.S. rose 2% in each of those years—a conservative estimate based on the fact that bottled water sales increase 4% a year. A greater proportion of plastic waste is ending up in landfills because there are fewer places to put it.

Jan Dell, one of the authors of the report, says the 9% figure was always inflated because China didn’t recycle many of the plastics it received from the U.S. Based on peer-reviewed research, Dell believes that China recycled less plastic than the United States. However, there’s no agreement about exactly how much. Some estimates indicate that only a third to a quarter of the plastic from China can be recycled. Furthermore, about a quarter of China’s plastic waste is mishandled, which means it is not properly buried or otherwise disposed of, and risks ending up seeping into the ground and flowing through waterways. Nonetheless, the U.S. counts all plastic exports—to China and elsewhere—as recycled because there is no accountability once waste leaves American shores, Dell explains.

A 5% recycling rate is depressingly low—particularly to consumers who diligently place plastic items with chasing arrow symbols into the blue bins under the pretense that they get a second life. And Dell says that the number may actually be lower: to provide the most conservative (and optimistic) estimate, the report’s methodology disregards pandemic influences, such as higher demand for single-use plastics, more medical waste, and disrupted sanitation programs.

Some pandemic-driven problems may be resolved in the future. But the broader, more systemic plastics crisis that’s persisted for decades will become more apparent now that it’s harder to ship it out of sight. “What this data shows is we’re getting back down to what is actually the U.S. domestic plastic recycling rate,” Dell says. “And we need to take responsibility for our own plastic waste and not schlep it off.”

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