Energy & Environment

US only recycled 5 percent of plastic waste in 2021: Greenpeace report

The Coca-Cola Company is retiring its green plastic Sprite bottles in favor of clear packaging. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Only about 5 percent of 51 million tons of U.S. plastic waste was recycled in 2021, according to a study from environmental advocacy group Greenpeace.

The report, issued Monday, determined that only a little more than 2 million tons of plastic waste was recycled last year. Moreover, after reaching a high of 9.5 percent in 2014 and an only slightly lower 8.7 percent in 2018, the number has been steadily declining in the last few years. The level had reached the 5 percent to 6 percent range by last year.

The research also found that no American type of plastic packaging met the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative’s definition of “recyclable” — that is, having a 30 percent recycling rate.

Two of the most common forms of plastic in America, polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polyethylene, are frequently referred to as recyclable, but the report determined that despite their frequent delivery to recycling plants, they are not actually recycled enough to meet the standard. Their recycling rate stands at about 20.9 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively. The reprocessing rate for all other forms of plastic is lower still, at under 5 percent, according to the report.

“Single-use plastics are like trillions of pieces of confetti spewed from retail and fast food stores to over 330 million U.S. residents across more than 3 million square miles each year. It’s simply not possible to collect the vast quantity of these small pieces of plastic sold to U.S. consumers annually,” Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner Lisa Ramsden said in a statement.

“More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and, without drastic change, will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050,” she said.

The report comes the same week environmental advocates have raised objections to Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of November’s COP27 climate summit, saying the company’s mass production of single-use plastic contributes to the same environmental degradation the summit is meant to address.

“If Coca-Cola really wants to solve the plastic and climate crisis, it needs to turn off its plastics tap,” Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar said in a statement in September. “Ending Coca-Cola’s addiction to single-use plastic is an important part of moving away from fossil fuels, protecting communities, and combating climate change.”

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