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In Depth: Recyclable plastic not always recycled

Report finds only 13% of plastic is recycled
Posted at 4:10 PM, Apr 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-21 23:46:15-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A report from Greenpeace shows only a small fraction of the plastic we think we're recycling is actually getting recycled. The rest of it is diverted to landfills or incinerators.

"It was surprising, even to us," says John Hocevar, the Director of the Greenpeace Oceans Campaign. "There are billions of us going through trillions and trillions of throwaway plastic items a year. Almost none of that is recycled."

According to the report, only 8.4% of the total Post-Consumer Plastic Waste created in the US is recycled. That's out of nearly 35 million tons of materials.

The report also broke it down by the resin type, most commonly identified by the number inside the recycling logo of arrows on the plastic:

#1 PET (common water and soda bottles): 18.2%
#2 HDPE (plastic jugs and household bottles): 9.4%
#3 PVC (tubing, vinyl, siding): 0.0%
#4 LDPE/LLDPE (baskets, plastic film, bags): 4.2%
#5 PP (small containers, pill bottles, straws, silverware): 0.5%
#6 PS (styrofoam cups, solo cups, to-go containers): 0.4%
#7 PLA (all other forms of plastic): 0.0%

"At the end of the day, there's almost no value or market for that recycled product so it doesn't happen," says Hocevar.

"We call it wish-cycling," says Ian Monahan from I Love a Clean San Diego. They've been working for years to educate people around the county about what should and should not be put in the blue recycling bins.

"Recycling is localized," says Monahan. "Just because a product may have an arrow on it with a number may mean it's recyclable, but it may not be recyclable in your city, town, or county."

The county has a website, It includes a full database of recyclable items. They also run a customer service hotline for people to ask questions. He says people in San Diego can feel confident in putting #1 and #2 plastics in their bin, as well as most other kinds of rigid plastic.

"If it's squishy, like a plastic bag, it's probably not recyclable," says Monahan.

But the long-term future of recycling is up in the air. In 2018, China stopped buying recyclable plastic from the US. They had been the largest importer of recyclable materials. Meanwhile, the cost of making new plastic is now cheaper than recycling old items. Because of that, Monahan says people need to focus more on "reduce" and "reuse," and less on "recycle."

"It comes down to a personal relationship with the products you choose to buy," says Monahan. "The solution is conservation and reduction."

"The real solution is that we have to stop producing so much throwaway plastic," adds Hocevar. "But that's a lot to put on the individual consumer."

Monahan suggests people who want to do better should pick one plastic item to eliminate for a month, like straws or plastic silverware. As they get used to that, they can eliminate another. Eventually, he says, you can reduce the need for plastic altogether.

To help, Greenpeace is putting pressure on companies to stop using plastic packaging. They're also fighting for tougher standards to make sure items labeled as recyclable can actually be recycled.

To that end, in 2021, the State of California passed a law banning the recycling symbol on plastic packaging "unless the rigid plastic bottle or rigid plastic container meets the requirements for statewide recyclability."

Several other city and county governments in California have stepped up with local bans on things like plastic bags, straws, silverware, and more.

"Yes, we can all reduce the amount of throwaway plastic that we bring into our homes," says Hocevar. "But I think the real solution is making sure that our elected officials understand that we want this to be fixed."