At Least 85 Percent of U.S. Plastic Waste Went to Landfills in 2021 – Smithsonian Magazine


Worker at a plastic recycling plant in Japan. Getty Images

Of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the United States last year, only five to six percent—or about two million tons—was recycled, according to a new report, conducted by the environmental groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup. About 85 percent went to landfills, and ten percent was incinerated. The rate of plastic recycling decreased since 2018, when it was at 8.7 percent, per the study.

“The paltry 5-6 percent U.S. plastic recycling rate in 2021 should be a wake-up call to the false promise that plastic recycling is a credible solution to plastic waste and pollution,” the report 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.”

U.S. plastic waste exports, which are included in recycling rates, decreased from 1.84 million tons in 2017 to 0.61 million tons in 2021 as countries such as China began ceasing to accept America’s waste, per the report. The U.S. doesn’t have the capability to recycle all of its own plastic, Jan Dell, founder of the Last Beach Cleanup, tells the Guardian’s Katharine Gammon.

“We don’t have factories to do it,” she tells the publication. “It’s also very water intensive, so we’re not going to build more plastic recycling facilities in the U.S.”

But despite a lack of recycling facilities, plastic waste has increased five-fold in the U.S. from 1980 to 2018. In 1980, the U.S. produced 7.4 million tons of plastic waste, and 38 years later, that number grew to 35.7 million tons, per the report. 

At its peak in 2014, plastic recycling rates only reached 9.5 percent. Yet the authors write the low level of plastic recycling doesn’t seem to lie in the act of recycling itself, because paper recycling has increased from 21.3 percent in 1980 to 68.2 percent in 2018. 

Instead, they blame a “decades-long misinformation campaign to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable.” Additionally, Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics, tells Earther’s Angely Mercado that the three arrow recycling symbol is misleading, because most municipalities recycle only certain types of plastics.

“Consumers are understandably confused,” Enck tells the organization. “They see the recycling logo, so they put the plastic packaging in their recycling bin.”

When residents co-mingle recyclable plastics with non-recyclable plastics, they contaminate loads, which then “usually get bundled for landfills or incineration,” per the study. 

Even plastics that do make it to recycling facilities aren’t all recycled, the authors report, stating that 30 to 36 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are wasted during the recycling process. 

“We need new laws on the books that reduce the amount of plastic packaging,” Enck tells Earther. “Because these companies are not going to reduce enough on their own, and consumers are left with little choices.”