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Plastic Recycling still has a long way to go in the U.S.

May 20, 2019

A new report from the Center for International Environmental Law has highlighted the environmental impact of the production and incineration of plastic around the world.

A new report from the Center for International Environmental Lawhas highlighted the environmental impact of the production and incineration of plastic around the world. It forecasts that the plastic lifecycle will add 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in 2019, equivalent to the emissions from 189 five-hundred megawatt coal power plants. Emissions from plastic are now threatening the ability of the global community to meet carbon emissions targets. The report also took a closer look at known paths of plastic waste in the U.S. and it makes the interesting and disturbing observation that only 9% of all plastic ever discarded since 1950 has been recycled while another 12% has been incinerated.

While plastic waste floating in our oceans, clogging our canals and coating our pavements rightfully attracts the bulk of the attention from campaigners, the life of plastic in the waste disposal system sometimes gets overlooked. The following infographic shows the total amount of plastic waste generated in the U.S. by year and where it goes once it enters the municipal solid waste disposal system. Given how little has been recycled over the years, it hardly comes a surprise that the bulk of it enters landfill. In 2015, 34.5 million tons of plastic waste was generated with only 3.1 million tons recycled. 5.4 million tons were combusted while 26 million tons were landfilled.

So why does so little plastic get recycled in the U.S. given the scale of the recent global backlash? Plastic packaging represents 40% of total production of plastic products and it is known to be highly problematic to recycle. Even when plastic products can be recycled, the process tends to involve many steps requiring separate collection, long-distance transportation, processing and re-manufacture. That results in high costs and a low commercial value of the recycled plastic, meaning that the process is rarely profitable and requires considerable government subsidies. Inevitably an unknown quantity of plastic packaging waste is mismanaged, primarily via littering and open burning. While the mismanagement rate is relatively low compared to other developed countries, the U.S. is still known as one of the major contributors to plastic ocean leakage.

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