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Study: Only 5 percent of plastic in U.S. is actually recycled

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According to the Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, the recycling rate in 2021 for the United States sat between 5-6%.

The Department of Energy also released a report this week, which investigated the same data used by Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, from 2019, and they reached the same figure; only 5% of plastics are being recycled.

The researchers on that report wrote that landfilled plastic waste in the United States has been increasing for several reasons, including “low recycling rates, population growth, consumer preference for single-use plastics, and low disposal fees in certain parts of the country,” according to their press statement.

The problem has gotten worse due to changes in the global recycling market, mainly China’s 2017 ban on most US plastic exports. Countries such as China used to accept ships boatloads of plastic waste from the United States, Last Beach Cleanup founder Jan Dell said.

With his option no longer being on the table, more plastic is being disgorged as there are very few facilities in the US who are capable of recycling it.

“The rate of plastic recycling in the US has never been about 4% to 5% ever,” she says. “We don’t have factories to do it. It’s also very water intensive, so we’re not going to build more plastic recycling facilities in the US.”

Dell said she found in her research that around 85% of plastics end up in landfills, and the remaining 10% are incinerated.

The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics’s report also revealed that noted that plastic recycling being in decline comes at a time when the plastic waste per person in the US has increased by 263% since 1980, from 60 pounds a person to 218 pounds a person.

“We can’t stay in the single use plastic nightmare scenario that we are right now,” says Dell. “There’s no way to sort our way out of this without reducing waste to start with.”

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