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Footprint May 20, 2022 12:05:14 PM 4 min read

New Stats Confirm Myth of Plastic Recycling

Written by:

Troy Swope | Co-Founder, Chief Executive Officer at Footprint

 

Recently one of our team members spotted a plastic salad container in a supermarket that said “Ready to Recycle”. What does it mean to say the container is ready? Ready, as in waiting for the recycling infrastructure to magically appear and for someone to say, “yes I’ll take that and recycle it – I’ll take it from your blue bin, keep it out of the landfill and make it into something new”?

A new report released this month from Beyond Plastics and Last Beach Cleanup finds that the likelihood of that plastic like that salad bowl being recycled is scarily slim. Some takeaways according to the report:

The current 2021 U.S. plastic recycling rate is estimated to be between 5 to 6%. This is a decrease from previous statistics closer to 9% at the peak, in 2014. But that counted U.S. exported material as recycled when it was largely burned or dumped. Since then, U.S. the plastic recycling rate has declined as exports of plastic waste declined.

  • Single-use plastic items are made of low-value material that makes them widely available but economically impractical to collect and recycle.
  • If including plastic waste collected under the pretense of “recycling” but burned instead, the real plastic recycling rate could be even lower. For example, plastic waste collected for “recycling” is sent to cement kilns and burned in Boise, Idaho[i] and Salt Lake City, Utah.[ii]
  • Toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging.

 

Legislation is playing a role in curbing recycling-through-exporting. Some more excerpts from the report:

  • Plastic waste exports previously counted as “recycled” plastic are decreasing due to import bans by China and Turkey and contamination limits set by countries under the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments.
  • Bans on other single use plastics in food service applications have been adopted by the European Union, California, County of Los Angeles, and many other governments.

 

The report concludes:

  • Plastic recycling is not a safe or realistic solution to reducing plastic waste and pollution in the United States.
  • It’s time to implement real solutions, particularly the reduction of single use plastic food service items that have the highest likelihood of polluting our environment.
  • We can’t be fooled any longer by illusory “circular economy of plastics” schemes promoted by companies and the trade associations, consultants, and NGOs that they fund. We must use sound science, credible data, and economic facts to adopt legitimate plastic waste and pollution reduction strategies to make real progress at serious scale now.

 

Reports like this are a good reminder that the best remedy to the plastic recycling problem is to find alternatives to plastic. According to the report, the failure of plastic recycling is in contrast to paper which is recycled at 66% (2020 figure per American Forest and Products Association). High recycling rates of post-consumer paper, cardboard, and metals proves that recycling works to reclaim valuable natural material resources.

Gillette debuted a new product advertised during the Superbowl recently, working with Footprint to convert its plastic razor trays to plant-based fiber, retaining its core brand values in the process. Annie's did this recently too, converting its mac n cheese cups to Footprint’s plant-based fiber and decided to forgo an extra label by leveraging our award-winning print-to-fiber technology. Conagra has been in Footprint’s fiber for a few years with its Healthy Choice and more recently Hungry Man line of products, reducing plastic. Sweetgreen is serving healthy salads in Footprint plant-based fiber as it continues to open new stores across the country. These companies and more Footprint customers understand that the only way out of the plastic recycling crisis is to stop depending on it in the first place. Not to mention the health benefits of keeping plastic away from food.

We should stop the myth of plastic recycling before it reaches the consumer. They sleep at night today thinking that their plastic items are actually being recycled, often encouraged by the misleading messaging on the packaging. This new report underscores the facts that it’s less likely than ever that their discarded single-use plastic ends up anywhere but a landfill. That’s without even factoring in that plastics production is on track to unleash more emissions than coal-fired power plants by the end of the decade, research has found, with the industry emitting at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year.

The time to lead is now – starting with accepting the myth of recycling plastic. Footprint and our customers continue to champion the change toward sustainable plant-based products made from renewable materials that are healthier for the planet and for people. We encourage you to join us!