A new Greenpeace USA report called "Circular Claims Fall Flat Again" contains sobering statistics for designers who work with plastic and the consumers who think they're recycling it. The report finds that "U.S. households generated an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, only 2.4 million tons of which was recycled." That's less than 5%. In 2014 it was 9.5%. The numbers are going the wrong way.
"Mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste fails because plastic waste is extremely difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, environmentally harmful to reprocess, often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and not economical to recycle."
In a survey of 375 recycling facilities, the study found that the vast majority of even supposedly highly-sought-after recyclable plastic simply doesn't get recycled, for reasons of contamination and difficulty of separating. So it winds up in landfill instead. The "good stuff"—PET #1 and HDPE #2—were recycled at rates of just 20.9% and 10.3% respectively, while all other types of plastics came in at less than 5%.
Making matters worse, single-use plastics production is increasing rapidly. As Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner explains:
"Single-use plastics are like trillions of pieces of confetti spewed from retail and fast food stores to over 330 million U.S. residents across more than 3 million square miles each year. It's simply not possible to collect the vast quantity of these small pieces of plastic sold to U.S. consumers annually. More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and, without drastic change, will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050."
"Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill."
You can read the full report here. At a minimum this should be mandatory reading for design students, particularly those focused on Package Design.
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There should be regulation that companies should take back their plastic packaging.