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Greenpeace report finds most plastic going to landfills as production increases: NPR




Greenpeace report finds most plastic going to landfills as production increases: NPR

Plastic piles up at the recycling facility in Salem, Oregon.

Laura Sullivan/NPR


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Laura Sullivan/NPR


Plastic piles up at the recycling facility in Salem, Oregon.

Laura Sullivan/NPR

The vast majority of the plastic people put in recycling bins is headed for landfills, or worse, according to a Greenpeace report on the state of plastic recycling in the US

The report cites separate data published in May which revealed that the amount of plastic actually being turned into new things has fallen to new lows of around 5 per cent. That figure is expected to drop further as more plastic is produced.

Greenpeace found that no plastic—not even soda bottles, one of the most prolific items thrown into recycling bins—meets the threshold to be called “recyclable” according to standards set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Initiative. Plastic must have a recycling rate of 30 percent to reach that standard; no plastic has ever been recycled and reused at anywhere near this rate.

“More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled,” says Lisa Ramsden, senior plastics campaigner for Greenpeace USA. “The crisis is only getting worse and worse, and without drastic changes it will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.”

Waste experts say the problem with plastic is that it is expensive to collect and sort. There are now thousands of different types of plastic, and none of them can be fused together. Plastic also breaks down after one or two uses. Greenpeace found that the more plastic is reused, the more toxic it becomes.

New plastic, on the other hand, is cheap and easy to produce. The result is that plastic waste has few markets – a reality the public has not wanted to hear.

Trent Carpenter, general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, says when they told customers a couple of years ago they could no longer take plastic waste other than soda bottles and jugs — like milk containers and detergent bottles — people were upset. They wanted to put strawberry containers, bags, yogurt cups and all kinds of plastic waste in the recycling bin.

“We had to reeducate individuals that a lot of that material ends up in a landfill,” Carpenter said. “It’s not going to a recycling facility and being recycled. It’s going to a recycling facility and being deposited somewhere else because [you] can’t do anything with that material.”

That message has been difficult for the public to absorb with so many different bins in public spaces and their own communities telling them to put their plastic in recycling bins.

Carpenter says they wanted to be transparent with their customers and tell them the truth, unlike companies that continue to tell customers that plastics, like bags and containers, are turned into new things.

“Politically, it’s easier to just say, ‘Gee, we’re going to take everything and we think we can recycle it,’ and then look the other way,” Carpenter said of the other companies. “It’s greenwashing at its best.”

Greenpeace found that a couple of facilities are trying to reprocess cups and containers – sometimes called “number 5s” because of the markings on the containers. But the numbers are low. While 52 percent of U.S. recycling facilities accept that type of plastic, the report found that less than 5 percent of it is actually reused—and the rest is landfilled.

The low reprocessing rates are at odds with the plans from the oil and gas industry. Industry lobbyists say they plan to recycle every piece of plastic they make into something new by 2040. In interviews with NPR, industry officials were unable to explain how they planned to reach a 100 percent recycling rate.

An investigative report by NPR found in 2020 that industry officials misled the public about the recyclability of plastics, even though their own reports showed they knew as early as the 1970s and 1980s that plastics could not be economically recycled.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group, did not respond to NPR’s request for comment on the Greenpeace report.

Environmentalists and lawmakers in some states are now pushing for legislation to ban single-use plastics, and for “bottle bills” that pay customers to bring back their plastic bottles. The bills have led to successful recycling rates for plastic bottles in places like Oregon and Michigan, but have faced strong opposition from lobbyists in the plastics and oil industries.

“The real solution is to switch to reuse and refill systems,” Ramsden said. “We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It is time for companies to turn off the plastic faucet.”

After years of embracing plastic recycling, many environmental groups say they hope the public will finally see plastic for what they say it is — trash — and that people will ask themselves if there’s something else they can use instead.



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