'Recycled' plastic is piling up in U.S. landfills

Recycling-industry leaders acknowledged that U.S. recycling capacity needs to rebuild.

Rick Docksai | Mar 08, 2020

Much of the plastic that Americans are placing in recycling bins is not being recycled at all, according to a survey of nearly 400 recycling facilities released earlier this month. The survey, conducted by Greenpeace, adds to a body of studies that suggest that the U.S. recycling industry is unable to make any meaningful dent in Americans' production of garbage waste.

Of 367 recycling facilities that Greenpeace surveyed, only 15% could process plastic "clamshell" package material, and fewer still could accept plastic plates, cups, bags, or trays. And none surveyed could process coffee pods.

The facilities instead frequently send these plastic items to the landfills, according to the report, which added that a wide variety of plastics known as "mixed plastics" are also difficult for the facilities' systems and end up in the landfills. Citing federal data, the report concluded that less than 5% of mixed plastics that go into recycling bins are ever recycled.

"This report shows that one of the best things to do to save recycling is to stop claiming that everything is recyclable," said John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace's Oceans Campaign. "We have to talk to companies about not producing so much throw-away plastic that ends up in the ocean or in incinerators."

The U.S. recycling industry was caught off-guard in 2018 when China, which the United States had been shipping most of its recyclable material to for processing, announced that it would cease most recycling of U.S. waste. Dozens of U.S. cities lack adequate facilities of their own for repurposing plastic waste and simply throw it away.

Recycling-industry leaders acknowledged that U.S. recycling capacity needs to rebuild. Kelly Cramer of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, an industry group, said that her organization advises consumers to get to know their local recycling programs and verify which types of plastics they can recycle.