Greenpeace USA’s report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again”, released Monday, October 24, concludes that most plastics generated in the United States cannot be recycled, to which the plastics and recycling industries respond that the recycling is essential to the circularity of plastics while recognizing that the recycling rate must improve.
According to the Greenpeace report, no type of plastic packaging in the United States meets the definition of recyclable used by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Initiative (EMF NPE), which calls for a 30% threshold. “in several regions, collectively representing at least 400 million inhabitants.
According to Greenpeace, two of the most common plastics in the United States that are often considered recyclable – polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), usually in the form of bottles and jugs – fall well below the EMF NPE threshold, reaching only retreatment rates of 20.9% and 10.3%, respectively. For all other types of plastic, the reprocessing rate is less than 5%.
However, Greenpeace’s PET and HDPE bottle recycling rates differ significantly from those reported in the 2020 U.S. Post-Consumer Plastic Recycling Data Report, which calculates the PET bottle recycling rate at 27.1% and the recycling rate of HDPE bottles at 28.8%. However, these figures remain below the 30% threshold of NPE EMFs.
According to Greenpeace, while PET and HDPE were previously considered recyclable, its report indicates that being accepted by a recycling processing plant does not necessarily mean that they are recycled, which effectively negates the recyclability claim.
The nonprofit also claims that US households generated about 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, and only 2.4 million tons were recycled.
According to the report, which updates a 2020 report, mechanical and chemical recycling of end-of-life plastics fails because they are extremely difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, harmful to the environment to reprocess, often manufactured and contaminated with toxic substances. materials and not economical to recycle.
Greenpeace says its initial survey on the acceptance of plastic items at US residential materials recovery facilities, or MRFs, has been continuously updated since its inception in October 2019 and rechecked in August 2022. The survey was conducted and verified by technically trained volunteers from The Last Beach Cleanup: two licensed professional chemical engineers and a recycling industry expert. Acceptance information has been found in the public domain and is shared publicly to promote transparency and establish a traceable record of the facts related to “recyclable” claims and labels for plastic products.
Lisa Ramsden, Plastics Campaigner for Greenpeace USA, says, “We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It’s time for companies to turn off the plastic tap. Instead of continuing to whitewash and mislead the American public, the industry should stand on the right side of history in November and support an ambitious global plastics treaty that will finally end the age of plastic by dramatically shrinking production and increasing refill and reuse.
In addition to adopting the Global Plastics Treaty, Greenpeace’s report urges companies to take several steps to alleviate systemic problems associated with plastic recycling, including phasing out single-use plastics and committing to standardization reusable packaging.
Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association (Plastics), Washington, responded to the Greenpeace report by saying that the plastics industry agrees plastic recycling needs to increase. “The difference between our industry and Greenpeace is that we understand the action needed to preserve a material that saves lives and improves our overall safety and quality of life through responsible use and recycling instead of creating false narratives. “
He also says, “Greenpeace activists cannot call themselves environmentalists while simultaneously discouraging recycling as part of the solution to our world’s waste problems. There is no doubt that we as a society can and should recycle more. However, their claims that recycling cannot keep plastics in the circular economy are misleading and irresponsible. Recycling is real, and claims that it can never work, made in this document, will likely result in unnecessary waste and public backlash that may actually cause greater environmental harm.
“The claim that ‘mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste has largely failed’ is a desperate attempt to counter the billions of dollars of investment that the plastics and recycling industries have invested in new technologies and solutions to make more recyclable products,” continues Seaholm.
He adds that the Greenpeace document does not mention the value provided by plastic packaging, such as reducing food waste and food waste emissions. “Especially at a time of heightened food uncertainty, global food shortages and increased demand, plastic must be embraced for its ability to build a reliable and sustainable food supply chain across the global economy. “, writes Seaholm.
He adds, “Another example is the essential role plastics play in the manufacture, transport and administration of healthcare, vaccines and immunizations, successfully contributing to global scientific progress.”
Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, Washington, in response to the Greenpeace report, said: “We agree that plastic recycling is not the panacea for plastic waste. However, the reality is that the world won’t just stop making plastic tomorrow, so what do we do today? We need to come together to do the hard but impactful work of building a better system; a system that focuses on reducing, reusing and recycling everything we can. That’s why The Recycling Partnership remains committed to working with all stakeholders, including companies that produce plastics, to improve recycling. Together, we can deliver a transparent system and responsible that offers the enormous economic and environmental benefits of recycling.
In an essay published in July this year on The Recycling Partnership’s website, Harrison writes: “Frustrated that recycling isn’t solving the global waste problem? Here’s the truth: as it is built now, it never will be. If we think we can just keep making and buying what we want without planning what will happen when we are done with that thing, recycling will never keep pace and we will always be disappointed.
The Recycling Partnership offers five steps to make a meaningful difference in recycling in the United States:
- investing $17 billion in the US recycling system;
- ensure that everyone has access to curbside recycling;
- encourage the public to recycle a range of materials;
- designing recyclable products and packaging; and
- adopt public policies that hold the value chain accountable for progress.
Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, Washington, also released a statement commenting on the Greenpeace report: “American plastics manufacturers are on the cusp of a circularity revolution, ushered in by the innovation and billions of investments in recycling technologies. We are accelerating the shift to greater plastics circularity by stepping up sorting, advanced recycling and new partnerships that make it possible to make used plastic again and again. Just last week, a $100 million investment was made to help sort more plastic for recycling, and another company pledged to triple the amount of circular and renewable solutions to 3 million metric tons per year.
“Greenpeace and its allies are advocating for the elimination of plastic, a material that makes modern life possible, reduces carbon emissions compared to alternatives, keeps our food fresher and safer, enables renewable wind and solar energy and reduces energy consumption in our homes and vehicles. . Greenpeace’s extreme views are misleading, out of touch and wrong.
Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), Washington, says, “The report says the US has a 5% recycling rate, but that can be misleading. It all depends on the denominator. rate, we look at the amount of consumer packaging produced. Greenpeace uses all created plastics as the denominator. It is important to note that these statistics include plastic items such as durable goods, playground equipment, even toilet seats, which are meant to last for many years, as well as non-durable goods not intended for recycling, such as garbage bags.
“Consumer packaging is mainly made of PET, HDPE and PP [polyethylene], used in a packaging context, combined, they have a recycling rate of 21%. Collectors currently have the ability to double that number. They need more supply. Misleading reports like this, which can discourage consumers from recycling, are not only destructive to our communities, but also to the environment and the economy,” he adds.
The APR recently pushed back against misleading plastics recycling data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a report titled “Recommit, Reimagine, Rework Recycling.”
APR says its report presents an important clarification on the data provided by the EPA for the discussion of recycling rates in the United States, explaining that 80% of rigid plastic packaging is made from PET, HDPE or PP. According to the APR report, 21% of these types of plastic are recycled based on EPA data. However, according to 2018 figures from the EPA, the latest available, the overall plastic recycling rate was only 9%. The APR notes that, similar to the Greenpeace report, the EPA statistics “include containers, packaging and durable goods intended to last for many years as well as non-durable goods not intended for recycling such as shopping bags. garbage”.
*This article was updated on October 26 to add APR’s comments.