When China stopped accepting recyclable plastics from around the world in 2018, it left many in the developed world wondering what would happen next. Some of the worst fears have come true, and a new report from the United States urges companies to stop labeling their plastic packaging as recyclable when it is not.
Greenpeace's 36-page “Circular Claims Fall Flat” study offers a comprehensive look at 367 material recovery facilities (MRF) in the US to better understand what happens to different types of plastics than Americans with good intentions leave curbside in their recycling bins. After identifying the kinds of plastics that come from most households - all milk jugs, soda bottles, yogurt tubs, and shampoo bottles - author John Hocevar explains why plastic has nowhere to go.
Hocevar found that only two types of plastics, PET # 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE # 2 (high-density polyethylene) bottles and jars, can truly be considered recyclable. Plastics in categories 3-7, which include everything from PVC vinyl to polypropylene straws to coffee lids, no longer have a market value and, in many cases, facilities can no longer handle them.
“We cannot collect an item for recycling, unless we have an end user who is willing to buy and recycle that item,” explained Hocevar in a medium-sized city in the US state of Pennsylvania, which will now only take the two viable categories of plastic.
“China used to accept most # 3, 4, 5 and 7 plastics, but it turns out that most of these plastics were not actually recycled. They were mostly being burned for fuel. "
China's decision was only part of the problem, and the US is not the only place experiencing it. Hocevar notes that investment in new plastic often makes it cheaper for manufacturers than the price of recycled materials. "When MRFs lose money collecting and sorting plastic or other material, their decision is to stop accepting it," he explained.