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Many Plastics Aren't Actually Recyclable, a New Report Shows

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Companies say that a lot of single-use plastic items are recyclable: cups, trays, lids, cutlery, straws, stirrers. But it turns out those claims are misleading.

American recycling facilities can only recycle a handful of the types of plastic being sent their way. That means many plastic products that Americans are tossing into recycling bins aren’t actually being recycled, according to a Greenpeace report published Tuesday. It’s the latest sign our recycling system is broken.


Many people think of plastics as one category of recyclables, but there are actually seven different types labeled by handy numbers, each with its own process to be recycled. Researchers surveyed 357 of recycling facilities across the nation and found most of them accept types #1 and #2, which is what bottles and jugs are most commonly made of. But the other five types are less commonly accepted.


The findings show 14 percent of the facilities accept plastic clamshell food containers, 11 percent accept plastic cups, 4 percent accept plastic bags and 1 percent accept plastic cutlery, straws, and stirrers. Single-use culture means these things are being produced in greater quantities. And while they may well say they’re recyclable, the reality is far different in many places.

“That means that in most households, you can’t send those to a facility that will recycle them,” John Hocevar, who led the report for Greenpeace told Earther. “So they’re going to end up in the landfill or incinerator, or just go straight into the environment.”

Further, though bottles and jugs are made of the two kinds of plastics that are most often accepted, even those products are often covered in shrink-wrap labels that make those products non-recyclable by most facilities as well.

The report says that since companies are “expanding the use of ‘recyclable’ labels on plastic products at an aggressive pace” in response to growing public concern about plastic pollution, this is the time to ensure that labels only go on products that can actually be recycled by most facilities.


But Greenpeace found that numerous major U.S. companies, such as Target, Nestlé, Danone, Walmart, and Aldi, have placed recyclable labels on products that most facilities can’t accept. While there are some changes afoot to address this glaring issue, Greenpeace said that that it will file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission against companies that do not make changes to recycling labels.

“Our recycling system is in real trouble right now, and one of the big reasons is that it is being overwhelmed by enormous amounts of low value on non-recyclable plastic,” said Hocevar. “It all goes into the same system, so it’s driving down the efficiency and cost effectiveness of recycling, in general. We really want to be able to have a reality-based conversation with corporate executives and policymakers about the need to move away from throw-away single use materials, plastic especially, but as long as they are pretending that all plastic packaging is recyclable, it’s difficult to get from where we are now to the solutions we need.”


Some of those solutions, Hocevar said, are encompassed by a federal bill introduced on Capitol Hill last week. That bill would ban some kinds of plastics, put a pause of up to three years on permitting new plastic production facilities, and require big corporations to design, manage, and pay for recycling programs. That could help head off the plastic production boom the U.S. oil and gas industry is planning over the next five years, which could further worsen the problem by flooding the market with new plastic. But more honest labeling is also another needed fix.

“People really care about plastic pollution and they want to make good choices,” Hocevar said. “It’s difficult because we often don’t have very many options available to us. If companies are misleading us about plastic being recyclable, it’s harder to make good decisions and changes.”