Why Recycling Plastic Is a Waste of Your Time

Only a small fraction of the 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by Americans last year was recycled, according to a Greenpeace report released last week.


This wouldn’t be the first environmental remedy that could’ve used a bit more foresight.


Just 5% of U.S. plastic was recycled in 2021, according to Greenpeace, which cited U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data published in May.

(Chart: Bennington College)

The environmental activist network found that recycling rates have declined year after year, while plastic waste has increased.

  • Why? “Mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste has largely failed and will always fail because plastic waste is: (1) extremely difficult to collect, (2) virtually impossible to sort for recycling, (3) environmentally harmful to reprocess, (4) often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and (5) not economical to recycle.”
  • According to Greenpeace, no plastic meets the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastic Economy Initiative’s threshold to be deemed “recyclable.”
  • So while the plastics used in water and soda bottles, or those seen in milk jugs and shampoo bottles, are accepted at the country’s roughly 400 material recovery facilities, most aren’t being recycled in practice.