Recycling isn’t dead, but plastic is killing it

by John Hocevar

February 20, 2020

A shocking new Greenpeace report reveals that most types of single-use plastic are not recyclable in the United States.

© Tim Aubry / Greenpeace

A shocking new Greenpeace report reveals that most types of single-use plastic are not recyclable in the United States. Despite the widespread use of “recycling” symbols and marketing aimed at convincing us that it is okay to use throwaway plastic, only bottles and jugs meet the minimum legal standard to be labeled recyclable.

Plastic packaging in grocery store.

What that actually means for the dutiful recycler is that most of those plastic items you are encouraged to wash, sort, and put in blue bins — the ones numbered 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7, and even some of the 1s and 2s – are usually ending up in landfills or incinerators, if not polluting the environment. And of course, we know very well that what gets burned or landfilled ends up contaminating our environment too, with toxic chemicals ending up in the soil we grow our food, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. 

Infographic illustrating acceptance rates of #3-7 plastics at recycling facilities in the U.S.

Don’t let this report turn you off on recycling. Plastic packaging is the problem, not recycling.

Because as bad as plastic is for marine life and human health, it is also harming our ability to recycle material that can be recycled over and over again, like aluminum, paper, and glass. Since everything is going in the same bin, plastic waste with no value or market ends up driving up the cost of the whole system, to the point where cities like Memphis, Philadelphia, and many others, are starting to struggle to pay for recycling. Meanwhile, most of the corporations responsible for producing all of this waste continue to try to push the costs of dealing with it onto taxpayers.

If all of that throwaway plastic is going to end up coming back to poison us, maybe we should stop making it. Companies are still dragging their feet, but we are starting to see some very encouraging regulatory proposals from cities, states, and even the US Congress. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act proposed by Senator Udall and Representative Lowenthal is exactly the kind of comprehensive legislation we need right now. 

Add your name to show your support for this groundbreaking legislation that will tackle the plastic waste crisis.

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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