U.S. Recycles 5% of Plastic Waste, Studies Show

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Matt Beasley

May 16, 2022, 5:31:11 PMMay 16
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U.S. Recycles 5% of Plastic Waste, Studies Show
By Talal Ansari, May 5, 2022, WSJ

Only 5% of plastic waste in the U.S. is being recycled,
according to an Energy Dept 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 prof at the University at Buffalo’s Dept 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. Recycling infrastructure, technology and
education haven’t kept pace.

Margaret J. Sobkowicz, associate prof of plastics engineering
at UMass 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 Assn, 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.

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.


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