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Why experts say plastic recycling won’t save the planet

Only a small percentage is being recycled

plastic recycling not working

In the last two years, the global plastic pollution crisis has gotten worse, with more plastic being produced and an even smaller percentage of it being recycled, according to a new report.

While a 2020 Greenpeace USA report anticipated that the declining cost of plastic production would lead to declining rates of recycling, its follow-up report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again: 2022 Update,” not only proves this prediction true, but highlights additional barriers to plastic recycling that make it an untenable solution.

As the report notes, the high recycling rates of paper, cardboard, and metals in the United States show that recycling can be an effective way to reclaim valuable natural material resources. However, unlike these other materials, plastic waste is extremely difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort, environmentally harmful to reprocess, and often made of and contaminated by toxic materials.

Complicating matters is the fact that the self-reported data of corporations is often misleading, as it relies on the theoretical possibility of recycling a plastic item rather than actual plastic waste processing rates. In reality, of the 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by Americans in 2021, only 5-6% was recycled.

“The plastics and consumer goods industries have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. Today, as plastic waste mounts, chokes our planet, and pollutes our communities, it is clear: most plastic simply cannot be recycled,” says Lisa Ramsden, senior plastics campaigner, Greenpeace.

As these realities are becoming more difficult to ignore, discussions about what to do regarding single-use plastics and plastic packaging are underway at the global level through the United Nations Environment Programme’s plastics treaty, in the U.S. Congress, in city halls and state capitals across the country, and in corporate boardrooms.

Advocates say there is a way forward. In addition to calling for a Global Plastics Treaty to set international standards, Greenpeace is also calling on companies to take the following steps:
  • Urgently move to reuse systems and packaging-free approaches. Set targets to have at least 50% reusable packaging by 2030.
  • Commit to collaborating with others to standardize reusable packaging and build shared reuse systems and infrastructure.
  • Phase out all single-use packaging and products.
  • Be transparent. Annually release verified data about the company’s single-use packaging footprint. Disclose where plastic originates and report on the full lifetime climate footprint of packaging production, use and disposal.
  • Advocate for political action to drive industry-wide transformation.
Ramsden notes that consumers can also get informed and foster change by contacting their political representatives and their retailers. To read the full report, visit

“We cannot rely on the recycling myth to solve the plastic crisis. It is time to accept that plastic recycling is a failed concept and turn to reuse and refill solutions,” says Ramsden.


PHOTO SOURCE: (c) curtoicurto / iStock via Getty Images Plus

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