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Is plastic recycling a scam? Here’s the truth about the common practice

Inverse: “A report found only 5 percent of plastic gets recycled. Experts explain what that means for the American consumer. Last fall, a Greenpeace report on plastic recycling made headlines around the world when news outlets led with the publication’s striking key finding: Only five percent of plastic household waste generated in the U.S. was recycled. The headlines made it seem like all plastic recycling was a doomed endeavor — but was that really the complete picture? Not exactly. “News outlets uncritically reported the figure, likely because they are not specialists in recycling or did not have the time or saw no need,” Conrad MacKerron, tells Inverse. MacKerron is the senior vice president of As You Sow, an organization that harnesses corporate responsibility and shareholder power to effect lasting change on environmental health and other issues. Inverse spoke with experts affiliated with the report, plastic reduction advocates, as well as the recycling industry, to break down the facts behind the report and what its findings really mean for plastic recycling and consumption in the United States. The Greenpeace report offered two key findings that media outlets reported on.

First, the overall plastic recycling rate declined to 5 to 6 percent in 2021. That’s down from a higher rate of 8.7 percent, as the EPA reported in 2018. Second, even types of plastic that typically have higher recycling rates aren’t being recycled enough. The report finds that Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) #1 and High-density polyethylene (HDPE) #2 plastic bottles and jugs are being reprocessed at a rate of 20.9 percent, which falls below the 30 percent minimum threshold set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative to determine if materials are recyclable. “In short, no type of plastic packaging in the U.S. meets the EMF NPE definition of ‘recyclable,’ concludes the report…”

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