US plastic recycling rates have fallen below 6%

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Americans are recycling far less plastic, according to an analysis released Wednesday, with rates falling below 6% in 2021. The new findings come as such waste has rebounded from the pandemic, despite global efforts to reduce pollution.

The Search for Beyond Plastics and the Latest Beach Cleanup aims to shed light on the state of recycling in the United States given a backlog in federal reporting. The Environmental Protection Agency has last released recycling rates in 2020 based on the data until 2018 and didn’t update it last year.

Based on the most recent EPA data available and last year’s plastic waste exports, the new report estimates that Americans recycled 5-6% of their plastics, up from 8.7% in 2018. But the real figure could be even lower, he added. , taking into account factors such as plastic waste collected for recycling that is “sent to cement kilns and burned”.

“The plastics industry needs to stop lying to the public about recycling plastics. It doesn’t work, it never will, and no amount of misleading advertising will change that,” said Judith Enck, who runs Beyond Plastics and served as an EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration. “Instead, we need consumer brand companies and governments to adopt policies that reduce the production, use and disposal of plastics.”

Although the use of plastics declined at the start of the pandemic, consumption increased alongside economic activity. Meanwhile, exports of plastic waste – which the authors say are counted in recycling figures without evidence – have plummeted following import bans imposed by countries such as China and Turkey.

Plastics production is on track to release more emissions than coal-fired power plants by the end of the decade, research shows, with the industry emitting at least 232 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year.

Millions of tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, ensnaring turtles and other wildlife. Even Mount Everest has not escaped microplastic pollution. The United States contributes the most to this deluge, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person.

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At the current rate of emissions, the world will burn through its remaining ‘carbon budget’ by 2030 – putting the ambitious goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) irrevocably out of reach, according to the latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In an emailed statement, the EPA told The Washington Post it was “aware of the report and will review the data.” The agency said it plans to update its “Materials, Waste and Recycling Facts and Figures” webpage later this year.

According to the United States’ first National Recycling Strategy, the EPA aims to achieve a 50% recycling rate by 2030. Some critics have criticized this strategy for not targeting current levels of plastic production.

According to EPA data, the country’s plastic recycling rate peaked at 9.5% in 2014, “although this number also counted materials exported from the United States as recycled when they were in large some burned or discarded,” the report said.

High recycling rates for other materials such as paper, cardboard and post-consumer metal “prove that recycling can be an effective way to recover valuable natural material resources,” the report says. “The problem is not with the recycling concept or process, but with the material itself – it is plastic recycling that has always failed.”

Plastics, the vast majority of which are made from fossil fuels, can take hundreds of years to break down. Rather than completely degrading, plastic breaks down into small pieces called “microplastics”. Over a lifetime, individuals unknowingly consume over 44 pounds of microplastics on average.

Globally, only 9% of plastic is recycled, according to the first Global Plastics Outlook report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), published in February. Fifty percent end up in landfills, 19 percent are incinerated and 22 percent are “mismanaged” and end up in uncontrolled landfills, burned in open pits or end up as trash.

“Despite the egregious failure of plastic recycling, the plastics, packaging and product industries have waged a decades-long campaign of misinformation to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable,” the report said.

In late April, California Attorney General Rob Bonta opened an investigation into the role of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in “causing and worsening the global plastic pollution crisis”. Bonta’s office issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest oil companies, seeking information about its efforts to mislead consumers about the effectiveness of recycling plastics.

Not a single plastic serving item “has even been recyclable” under the legal definition given by the Federal Trade Commission’s “green guides,” according to the report, including the polypropylene cups and lids touted by Starbucks.

In March, the United Nations adopted a first-of-its-kind, legally binding treaty to “end plastic pollution”. Details of the treaty will be worked out by 2024.

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