Just because that plastic item you rinsed out and placed in your recycling bin is labeled as recyclable doesn’t mean it actually is.
According to a 2020 Greenpeace study, plastics are almost all non-recyclable and end up in landfills or incinerators in the United States. According to the report, only two types of plastic are accepted by most recycling facilities in the United States. Even then, only a fraction of the plastic waste is actually processed.
How small? The Environmental Protection Agency claims that less than 9% was recycled from plastic material produced in the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste stream in 2017, and 2018. These are the last years for which data is available. Another 15.8% were burned for energy, and 75.6% were sent to landfills. Each year, millions of tons end up in rivers and oceans.
In a report, the National Academy of Sciences stated that it is impossible to stem the rise in plastic use. It is important for companies to reduce their production and recycle programs to reuse more of what they throw away.
While recycling “is technically possible for some plastics, little plastic waste is recycled in the United States,” the report said, noting that materials put in plastics to change hardness or color make them too complex to recycle cheaply, compared to making new virgin plastic.
Many of the companies producing the majority of single-use plastic waste in the world have pledged sustainability-related changes in recent years while spending millions in marketing to convince the public that their plastics are recyclable.
“Instead of moving away from single-use plastics, corporations are hiding behind pretending that their throwaway packaging can be recycled,” John Hocevar (Greenpeace USA oceans campaign director), stated in a press release. “We now know this is not true. The jig is up.”
Howard Hirsch, an attorney with the public interest firm Lexington Law Group which has won plastics-related litigations against several consumer product giants, told NBC that there’s an “overall corporate effort” to make the public feel like they can consume without consequence so long as they throw everything in the recycling bin, regardless of whether it belongs there.
Hirsch pointed to a 2020 investigation by NPR and PBS’s “Frontline,” which found the makers of plastic — the nation’s largest oil companies — lobbied states in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to mandate the “chasing arrows” symbol appear on all plastics. The petroleum companies and industries that depend on plastic bottles to store their products sold the idea that most plastic could be recycled. Despite knowing better and making billions of dollar in the process.
“Growing up, we all learn, ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle.’ And unfortunately, the first two R’s are often skipped over in favor of the third,” Hirsch said.
Codes for plastic resin What does the recycling symbol really signify?
A number is imprinted on most plastic products. It’s usually surrounded by three arrows and surrounded with a triangle. This code is also known as a resin ID code. Consumers have long assumed if a package contains one of these symbols that item is recyclable, but that’s not the case.
The code was adopted in 1980 by the plastics industry as a standard for plastics manufacturing. According to the American Society for Testing and Materials, the numbers indicate the type and grade of the plastic resin used in a product. And while they are not “recycle codes” for consumers, they are an aid to recycling.
There are seven major resin codes.
- Plastic No. 1. This plastic is made from polyethylene terephthalate (or PET).
- Plastic No. 2. This plastic is made of high-density polyethylene or HDPE.
- Plastic No. 3. is polyvinylchloride, or PVC.
- Plastic No. Plastic No. 4 refers to low-density polyethylene or LDPE.
- Plastic No. Plastic No. 5 indicates that the material is made of polypropylene or PP.
- Plastic No. Plastic No. 6 is either polystyrene (or PS;
- Plastic No. Plastic No. 7 is a catchall category that covers any material not yet listed.
Each municipality and county has its own recycling program with different rules and capabilities in plastics recycling. Items marked with the Nos. Most likely, items labeled with Nos. 4 through 7 will end up in the landfill. They are not recyclable and they are often difficult to recycle. These numbers are often found on plastic bags and Solo cups, styrofoam containers, toys, and other items. Plastics bearing the number 3. 3 — found on cosmetics packaging, shrink wraps and piping — are not only not recyclable, However, their chemical composition could contaminate other batches.
Greenpeace surveyed the nation’s 367 materials recovery facilities and found that only PET No. HDPE No. HDPE No. 2 and plastic bottles can both be legally labeled as recyclable in America. These plastic products can be recycled if the full-body shrink sleeves are not removed.
Greenpeace’s report found that only 14% of facilities accepted plastic containers commonly used for takeout. About 11% accepted plastic cups. Only 1% accepted straws. None could process single-use coffee capsules.
Shannon Crawford, spokeswoman for Plastics Industry Association in opposition to a California law on recycling mislabeling, stated that plastics still must be imprinted with the recycling symbol in at most 30 states.
California’s bill was signed into law by the Democratic Governor. Gavin Newsom prohibits the sale or distribution of packaging that makes false claims about its recycling ability. Senate Bill 343 sets the highest standards for what items can display the chasing Arrows.
“It shouldn’t be a difficult concept: if it says ‘recyclable,’ that means you should be able to put it in the recycling bin, and if it says ‘compostable,’ you should be able to put it in the composting bin,” said the bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting. “Somehow companies have decided that they can get away with marketing that they know is deceptive because of the technicality that most things are theoretically recyclable or compostable.”
Opponents of the law said that the bill would force companies to comply with California laws or create California-only packaging products.
The bill is supported by a coalition of over 70 organizations, including Sierra Club California. In a joint statement, they said that this will encourage producers to use sustainable packaging options and support companies seeking steady supplies of material to support investment in recycling and reprocessing plants in California.
It is too costly to recycle: A sad market with very few buyers
Recycling is considered a single-stream process by many Americans. Plastics, glass and metal are all mixed in one bin. The system was widely used in the 1990s to increase recycling rates in America. According to the EPA, it increased national recycling rates from 10.1% in 1985, to 28% by 2000.
Although a magic container made recycling simpler for consumers, it created problems for processors and made it more difficult to sort. For example, if glass is broken in a bale made of mixed plastics, it can contaminate the load and cause it to be thrown away. Another problem is food poisoning.
Even if the material ends up being processed, the question remains: Who wants it? That’s because what is and isn’t recyclable depends on what the market is willing to buy and repurpose. If no one wants it, it can’t be recycled. The United States has been struggling to find a new market since China stopped importing plastic waste in 2018.
For nearly two decades, China had been the top buyer of the world’s plastic recyclables, taking in more than 116 million tons of material between 1992 and Dec. 31, 2017, according to a study on the global plastic waste trade. Because the plastic waste was contaminated, most of it ended up in landfills and incinerated. Beijing’s decision to crack down on imports of American waste led to a collapse in prices for recyclables and left the U.S. recycling industry scrambling to find new markets willing to buy our trash.
“The Chinese were actually paying for this material, so the prices for a lot of these materials plummeted,” said Anne Germain of the trade group National Waste & Recycling Association, in a phone interview with NBC. “And so the ability to have an economically viable recycling program was jeopardized.”
In the year after China’s ban was implemented, local recycling processors began scaling back plastics collection, with many accepting only plastics numbers 1 and 2 because there was “sufficient market demand and domestic reprocessing capacity,” according to Greenpeace’s report. Others began charging fees to residents to offset the rising costs of their programs. However, most people opted to dump recyclables in landfills.
According to the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, recycling operations were stopped completely in Franklin. Franklin used to be able to sell mixed recyclables at $20 per ton. The market crashed and Franklin was forced to pay $129 per tonne to send its mixed recyclables off to processors. The extra cost of recycling was too much for a community that is already struggling with its budget and where 20% of residents live below the poverty line.
In Pennsylvania, the City of Erie Department of Public Works informed residents that its vendor could only accept plastic numbers 1 and 2 due to low global market demand for “other plastic items” that “used to be shipped overseas, but are no longer being accepted.” All other plastics, it states in its recycling guide, “should be thrown in the trash.”
According to the EPA, however, only 29% of PET plastic bottles that can be recycled and 19% of HDPE plastic bottles can be recycled.
These numbers reveal a sad truth: Both domestic producers and private-sector companies are not motivated by plastics recycling.
Recycling is generally more expensive than making products from virgin resin. It is now more difficult, takes more effort, uses more energy, and costs more to collect, sort, clean, and prepare used plastics. Because plastics are mostly made from oil, and fossil fuel prices remain low over time, virgin plastic is more profitable to produce.
“One of the major barriers for recycling is the economics of virgin plastic and subsidization of the fossil fuel industry,” said Margaret Spring, chief conservation and science officer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and chair for the National Academy of Sciences report.
Containers are often made from a mixture of plastics and chemicals. This can make it difficult to find a base material that can still be used and recycled. Plastics that are more difficult to recycle eventually lose value due to the degradation of their quality. The material can then be recycled to make carpets, plastic lumber, or benches.
California became the first state in the country to require a minimum recycled percentage of 15% in all beverage containers. This was in response to the growing tide of plastics. The law’s purpose is to stimulate domestic demand for recycled plastic and, in turn, support the whole recycling system.
Germain praised and hailed the law, noting how the market value for California plastics has risen more than anywhere else in the nation since its passing.
“We can’t just be pushing material into recycling and hoping that somebody is going to buy it,” Germain said. “We need a buyer for all the materials.”
Plastic producers are required to pay for the cost of recycling
States can address the high cost of disposing of the packaging material that accumulates around the country by shifting responsibility from the municipalities to the producers.
Maine lawmakers passed the nation’s first “producer liability” bill in July. It requires manufacturers of packaging materials to cover the disposal costs. The “producer payments”, or fees, will be deposited into a new fund which will be used for reimbursement of municipalities for waste management and recycling costs.
“Right now, taxpayers are paying to manage packaging waste,” said state Rep. Nicole Grohoski, in a phone interview with NBC. “This is going to shift the cost from taxpayers onto the producers of waste, who are the ones that really control the decisions around what packaging is made of and how much packaging there is.”
With the market volatility increasing the cost of running recycling, Grohoski said many municipalities — especially rural ones — are struggling to maintain their programs.
Grohoski explained that Maine has been working hard to reduce its waste stream by at least half since 1980. Grohoski stated that the bill will allow the state to meet its long-term recycling goals because packaging accounts for 40% of Maine’s waste stream.
Grohoski stated that the law is intended to encourage industry to reduce excessive and non-environmentally responsible packaging. The legislation allows companies to reduce their costs by using recyclable material or packaging without toxins like PFAS that is easier to recycle.
Nearly a dozen states — most of them Democratic-leaning — are considering similar legislation, including large influential economies like California and New York. Producer responsibility legislation has been introduced by lawmakers in Hawaii (Maryland), Massachusetts, Washington, and Vermont.
“It’s an opportunity to recognize the problem here at home here in America and be a part of the solution and create a more circular waste management system, rather than shipping it off and hoping for the best,” Grohoski said.
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