This Is Plastics: No New Story Here: Activist Groups Attack Recycling, Ignore Solutions to Plastic Waste


No New Story Here: Activist Groups Attack Recycling, Ignore Solutions to Plastic Waste

Learn more about how activist groups cherry pick outdated recycling information to fit their narratives against plastics.


A recent report from Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup blindly estimates current recycling rates based on outdated information and irrelevant data. Without a proper methodology, or actual sources that have been updated in recent years, it is confusing how these groups reached final numbers at all. This report proves further that activist organizations cherry pick data to attack plastics, a material that not only reduces greenhouse gases at every step of its life cycle but also ensures that every consumer has access to everyday goods.

The report arrives at its estimates via Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recycling rate data from 2018 and 2020 EPA data, which itself was based off 2018 rates, and plastic waste generation and export data. The report also claims to “factor in additional losses that aren’t measured, such as plastic waste collected under the pretense of “recycling” that are burned (incineration), further undermining the data points it presents. EPA classifies incineration as a recovery technology and this information is already excluded from EPA reported recycling rates. The report even goes so far as to complain that EPA has not recently updated recycling or waste management data, ignoring the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic largely shut down many agencies due to health risks.

One of the report’s main focal points is that plastic recycling rates have failed to improve over the last few decades, while glass, paper and aluminum rates have continued to increase. This is factually incorrect. The American Forest and Paper Association recently released paper and cardboard recycling rates for 2020, which actually show that recycling rates for these materials declined between 2018 and 2020. It is possible that the same can be said for aluminum and glass. Furthermore, as plastic production and demand have increased, recycling rates have kept up, even though there are more products in the system. If recycling technologies were not working, rates would have fallen over the last couple of decades.

Aside from ignoring recent industry data, the recycling report also fails to mention that the United States began recycling glass, aluminum, and paper in the 1960s, a full 30 years before plastics recycling began. This gives these materials the advantage of time—which the plastics industry is working hard to remedy. To put this into perspective, let’s look at the recycling rates of other materials in their first few decades of recycling. Glass recycling rates actually decreased in the second decade of recycling before stabilizing around 25 percent since the early 2000s. Paper and paperboard rates also fell in their second decade of recycling history and have settled in the high sixty-percent range.

Comparatively, commercial scale plastics recycling did not begin until the 1990s and has only experienced increasing rates since. As mentioned previously, plastic recycling rates have also kept up with an increase in material flows due to higher demand for and use of plastic products. Although plastic recycling rates currently remain lower than other materials, technologies to recycle more products, faster are actively being researched and implemented by industry and government alike. This is indicative of an industry that is experiencing ongoing maturation.

It is clear that recycling does work as an effective and efficient way to keep valuable materials in the economy. Although, for Beyond Plastics recycling is only acceptable for glass and aluminum, not plastics.

In addition to ignoring real data that point to the exact opposite findings than were published, Beyond Plastics and The Last Ocean Cleanup also disregard the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted the waste management and recycling industries. At the start of the pandemic many recycling and materials recovery facilities (MRFs) were temporarily closed due to employee safety concerns. Curbside recycling programs were also suspended throughout the country to protect workers and keep the nation safe and healthy. Criticizing these actions and instead blaming the plastics industry for subdued recycling rates in the immediate past, is effectively asking waste management and recycling workers to disregard their own health and get back to work. This is not how we get to a better solution.

Finally, the new report offers other “proven solutions” to plastic waste, including plastic bans, which are actually far worse for the environment than using single-use items to being with. As has been found in studies done by accredited universities around the country, including the University of Michigan and the University of Georgia, plastic bans actually create more environmental concerns by changing consumer behavior. Banning single-use plastic bags for example pushes consumers to purchase heavier duty plastic or other material bags that take more energy and water to produce even though they are still only used once. Despite their intended single-use, plastic bags are often used again as lunch bags, trash can liners, or pet pick up bags. This reduces their overall environmental impact, while banning them pushes consumers to use more environmentally degrative options. Single-use plastic products provide an affordable way for many families to access food and basic goods, while also enabling them to be reused.

Continued attacks on plastics will neither support healthier end markets nor ensure that all consumers can access the things they need every day. Instead of disseminating unfounded claims that actually hurt recycling, we must work together to ensure that all plastics have a safe end market so they can be recycled and reused for years to come.  

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