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05 • 17 • 2022

New Report Reveals U.S. Recycling Rate Has Fallen to 5 ~ 6%

By Miho Ligare

The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics recently released a report titled “The Real Truth About the U.S. Plastic Recycling Rate: 2021 U.S. Facts and Figures” analyzing data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and plastic waste exports showing that the 2021 recycling rate was 5 ~ 6%. The report also states that this number may be even lower because it did not account for additional losses that were not considered, such as plastic waste collected under the pretense of “recycling” but burned. Prior to this report, the latest U.S. recycling rate from the EPA was 8.7% in 2020, looking at data from 2018. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory also recently confirmed plastic waste recycling rate in 2019 at 5%. 

Figure 1: U.S. EPA Post-Consumer Plastic Waste Generation and Recycling Rate

Plastic Recycling is a Broken System

Although the plastics industry continues to tout recycling as a solution to our plastic pollution crisis, the reality, as evidence shows, is that recycling plastic has never worked. And the recycling rate continues to deteriorate.

Plastic products that are not recycled are landfilled, burned, or ending up in our environment at a much higher rate. Plastic recycling also perpetuates the global plastic pollution crisis and burdens countries that do not have the infrastructure to manage plastic waste exported by countries like the U.S.  

According to EPA data, the U.S. plastic recycling rate peaked at 9.5% in 2014, which is still abysmally low, and counted exported materials to other countries. And recycling rates have been projected to fall further due to little demand for recycled plastics when virgin resins are abundant and inexpensive. And if other countries continue to follow China’s lead by banning the import of plastic waste there will be less plastic waste shipped around the world. 

Turning to Real Solutions 

Recycling is a false solution – a narrative pushed out by the plastic industry. We need real solutions that address the plastic pollution crisis at the source. Surfrider Foundation advocates for real solutions including bans on single-use plastics, systematic changes geared towards refill/reuse systems, and comprehensive policies that holistically address plastic pollution. The whole lifecycle of plastics is harmful, disproportionately impacting low-income and BIPOC communities. By reducing plastic products at the source, we can improve our communities, wildlife, and environment.  

We can't do this alone, and we all play an integral part in implementing real solutions. It can look like everyday actions to reduce plastic consumption, urging representatives to pass legislation that reduces plastic pollution in a meaningful way, or joining a local Surfrider chapter or club