Six Times More Plastic Waste is Burned in U.S. than is Recycled

By Jan Dell, Independent Engineer, The Last Beach Cleanup

As the equivalent of 65 trash trucks per day[1] of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean in the United States (U.S.) via our land, rivers and coasts, companies that make and sell plastic and single use disposable plastic products continue to tell us that recycling is the primary solution to plastic pollution.  The relentless focus on the future path for recycling plastic packaging flies in the face of the hard facts: post-consumer plastic recycling in the U.S. is generally economically impractical. For example, polypropylene #5 plastic cups and lids promoted as recyclable by fast food companies are not recyclable in a growing number of places of the U.S. As a result, about 6 times more post-consumer plastic waste is burned in the U.S. than is domestically recycled.

Most importantly, there is no proof that plastic material recyclability or access to recycling bins genuinely reduces plastic pollution. Conversely, in The Behavioral Economics of Recycling study published in the October 2016 Harvard Business Review, Remi Trudel at Boston University performed tests that showed people used more cups and gift wrap when there was a recycling bin available. The findings suggested that “consumers feel comfortable using a larger amount of a resource when recycling is an option”.  In testimony to the Colorado State Legislature in defense of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam food containers over replacement by recyclable products, a chemical industry representative stated “This doesn’t mean replacement products will be recycled or reduce litter”.

What does work to reduce plastic pollution? As detailed later in this article, there is abundant proof from numerous studies around the world that legal mechanisms, including plastic bag bans and beverage container deposit laws, do successfully decrease plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is a blight in our cities and on our landscapes and harms our rivers, ocean and many species who mistake plastic for food.  The U.S. ranks 20th on the list of countries contributing to plastic pollution in the ocean with an estimated 88 to 242 million pounds/year. The annual International Coastal Cleanup confirmed the evidence of plastic pollution on U.S. coasts in 2017 when more than 3.7 million pounds of trash, the majority of it plastic, was collected on a single day. The Chattanooga River, still filled with plastic pollution despite continual cleanups, proves that volunteer efforts aren’t enough.

Making matters worse, plastic pollution is an expanding problem as production and consumption of new plastic grows in the U.S. As an independent chemical engineer on a quest to The Last Beach Cleanup, I believe we can’t afford to be distracted by illusory schemes. We must use sound science, credible data and economic facts to adopt legitimate plastic pollution reduction strategies to make real progress at serious scale now.

The Real Story is in the U.S. Government Data

The U.S. Government publishes two sets of data related to plastic waste and recycling. Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) publishes the “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report” with details of the fate of municipal waste. The publication of this report lags by about three years. In July 2018, the USEPA published the 2015 Data Tables.  Each month, the U.S. Census Bureau Trade Online publishes export data for shipments of plastic waste (officially called “waste, paring and scrap”) generated in the U.S. and sent to other countries. The plastic waste exported is predominantly low value municipal plastic waste.  Combined together, the two datasets tell the story of the very low domestic municipal plastic recycling rate in the U.S.

Figure 1 shows that in 2015, before China’s National Sword policy had been announced or enacted, 2.26 million tons of U.S. plastic waste were exported and counted as recycled. Since the USEPA reported that a total of 3.14 million tons were recycled, that means only about 0.88 million tons of municipal plastic waste were recycled domestically in the U.S. in 2015. That is only 2.5% of the total 34.5 million tons of plastic waste that Americans generated. About six times as much municipal plastic waste was burned in the U.S. in 2015 than was domestically recycled.  As exposed in the video documentary “Plastic China” and more than twenty other documentaries and reports, we now know that the exported plastic waste was not all recycled and some of it was also burned.

Figure 1 Notes: a. Data source: USEPA “ Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report ” b. Data Source:  U.S. Census Bureau’ US Trade Online  c. Estimated via mass balance d. 5% annual growth in single use plastics assumed based on  growth in U.S. bottled water sales . e. No change between 2015 and 2018

Figure 1 Notes: a. Data source: USEPA “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report” b. Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau’ US Trade Online c. Estimated via mass balance d. 5% annual growth in single use plastics assumed based on growth in U.S. bottled water sales. e. No change between 2015 and 2018

Now let’s look at 2018: While the U.S. Census Bureau has published plastic waste export data for 2018, the USEPA will not publish the 2018 plastic waste data until 2021. Using industry and news reports, an estimate can be made of how much municipal plastic waste was generated, burned, recycled and landfilled in the U.S. in 2018. While it’s not possible to make an exact prediction of the missing data, a solid engineering estimate of material flows can be made.

In 2018, the total amount of plastic waste generated in the U.S. likely rose to about 39.9 million tons, based on a growth rate of 5% which is equal to the annual growth rate of U.S. bottled water sales. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that plastic waste exports shrunk to 1.19 million tons, primarily because of China’s import restrictions. U.S. plastic waste recycling capacity and production were not reported to have measurably increased by industry and news reports. A sizable new polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle recycler started operations in Los Angeles in late 2018. But, according to the 2016 NAPCOR PET Container Recycling Activity report, 7 of 28 PET recyclers shut down removing 16.6% of processing capacity in 2016.  Based on latest plastics industry recycling reports, domestic recycling of the three top plastic bottle types (#1 PET, #2 HDPE and #3 PP) stayed flat between 2015 and 2017. That means that domestic plastic waste recycling likely remained at about 0.88 million tons. The total amount of plastic waste sent to incineration in 2018 was likely at least as much as in 2015. While two incineration facilities closed during that period, remaining facilities were reported to burn more plastic waste, including about half Philadelphia’s recyclables as reported by The New York Times. In the comprehensive survey of “How recycling is changing in all 50 states”, industry news source Waste Dive reports that plastics collected for recycling are now also being sent to incinerators in Connecticut, Florida, and Wisconsin.

Adding it all together, that means that the U.S. recycled only about 2% of our municipal plastic waste in our domestic facilities and we continued to burn more than six times that amount in 2018.  The ratio may have been even higher, but cities are reluctant to publicize the fact that plastic is being sent to incineration instead of recycling.

Why Isn’t More Plastic Waste Being Recycled in the U.S.?

Product manufacturers prefer new plastic because there is higher material quality and supply certainty at a lower cost.  Using recycled plastic poses contamination and delivery risks and higher costs that manufacturers wish to avoid, resulting in weak demand for recycled plastic.

The costs of recycling include many trucks and drivers to collect the widely dispersed waste, labor and equipment to sort the waste, and processing facilities to clean and convert the material.  Recycling costs are increasing due to tight truck driver and labor markets. Conversely, cheap and abundant natural gas and massive new plastic production expansion is driving the prices of new plastics lower.  These factors work against the key premise that waste plastic will someday have enough value to drive recycling it rather than disposing or destroying it.  

The economic realities of cheap new plastic production and low-cost oil and gas production make mechanical and chemical recycling processes economically uncompetitive and impractical at commercial scale.  To quote the chemical industry representative again, “There’s a big difference between what’s technically recyclable and what’s being recycled”. For example, there was a report earlier this year of 10,000 lbs. of unwanted plastic bag waste sitting in a Southern Illinois warehouse because no one wanted to buy it for recycling.

While some companies have made promises to voluntary incorporate more recycled plastic in their products, it isn’t clear that market demand is significantly increasing. In fact, in response to California’s law requiring disclosure of recycled content in beverage bottles, Coca-Cola reported a decrease in recycled content in their soda bottles from 16% in 2017 to 9% in 2018. The company also reported that they still do not use recycled plastic in non-carbonated water, tea, sports drinks and fruit juice beverage bottles sold in California.

Plastic recycling itself also creates plastic waste. The latest NAPCOR report on PET beverage bottle recycling stated that about 29.2% of PET beverage bottles in the U.S. were collected for recycling.  But due to contamination and process losses, not all of that material is actually processed into “clean flake” material for recycling. In fact, about a third of the collected bottle material is disposed to landfill or destroyed in incineration, leaving only 20.9% of the collected bottles converted into recycled material.

What’s Wrong with Incinerating Plastic Waste in the U.S.?

First, incineration is not material recovery, it is material destruction. The plastic waste material is burned into CO2 and water and the heat generated is used to make steam which generates power. While the facilities are called “Waste-to-Energy”, their primary purpose is to destroy material and decrease the volume of waste sent to landfills.  But a significant volume of toxic ash containing heavy metals remains when municipal waste is burned – about 10% - 15% of the original volume of waste – and it must be managed and disposed of as a hazardous waste. All but one of the 75 municipal waste incineration facilities in the U.S. were built before 1997 and have had to add pollution controls to address air emissions of heavy metals, SOx and NOx.  Yet concerns of the health impacts from the remaining toxic air emissions and truck traffic is driving the shutdown of some facilities, such as the incinerator in Detroit that exceeded air pollution standards on hundreds of occasions over the past several years. From a climate change perspective, burning plastic is not a smart way to make power. Since a large amount of energy was used and carbon was emitted to make the plastic resin in the first place, the power generated from burning plastic has a higher lifecycle carbon footprint than renewable energy or power generated from natural gas combustion.

What are Proven Solutions to Reduce Plastic Pollution?

The estimated 2% U.S. domestic plastic recycling rate in 2018 should be a wake-up call to the false promise that the existing voluntary, economic-driven U.S. recycling system is a credible solution to plastic pollution. It’s time to implement real solutions to plastic pollution, particularly the reduction of single use plastics in “on-the-go” situations that have the highest likelihood of polluting our environment.  

Bans on plastic bags, straws and EPS foam containers: Many single-use plastic items are made of low-value material that makes them widely available but economically impractical to collect and recycle.  When there are reusable alternatives or better materials available, the best solution is to eliminate the items from use. Plastic straws, plastic bags and EPS foam food containers quickly fall into the better-to-eliminate category, as described in the Ban 2.0 List.

Legislative action to restrict single use plastic bag distribution has resulted in a reduction of plastic bag pollution around the world:

  • United Kingdom and Ireland: According to a 25-year study from the United Kingdom government's Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, there are significantly fewer plastic bags on the seafloor after European countries introduced bag fees.  The study was based on 39 independent scientific surveys of the distribution and abundance of marine litter between 1992 and 2017.

  • Suffolk County, New York:  The number of bags found polluting shorelines fell steeply in the first year after a 5-cent bag fee was enacted.

  • Austin, Texas: the Austin Resource Recovery study found that the Single Use Bag Ordinance was successful in reducing the amount of plastic bag litter in the city. Austin Parks Foundation reported a 90% reduction in plastic bag litter in the first six months after the ordinance had been passed.  (Austin and other local bag ordinances in Texas have since been nullified due to a Texas Supreme Court decision).

  • San Jose, California: Plastic bag litter was cut by 89% in the storm drain system, 60% in the creeks and rivers, and 59% in city streets just 1-2 years after a single-use plastic bag ban took effect.

  • Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post reported about a 30 percent drop in bags collected in cleanups.

  • Folly Beach, South Carolina: Fewer plastic bags found in beach cleanups after plastic bag ban was enacted.

Driven by the motive to reduce plastic pollution and plastic waste generation, over 300 U.S. cities and a few states have passed plastic bag, straw and EPS foam ordinances. The National Coalition of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) reports that 34 states are now considering over 200 pieces of legislation to address plastic pollution. Legislation toolkits for communities and states to create ordinances to restrict or ban plastic items have been developed by Surfrider, Plastic Pollution Coalition and others.

Water refill stations and deposits on plastic beverage bottles: The best strategy to cut plastic beverage bottle pollution is to make it easy for people to use fewer disposable bottles and to ensure that no bottle is left behind.

Public water refill stations are key to decreasing single use plastic water bottle consumption.  Cities and their water agencies benefit from installing water refill stations which offer a filling function in addition to a drinking fountain.  People are provided with free sources of high-quality drinking water and plastic waste is decreased. For example, Eastern Municipal Water District in Southern California has installed nearly 120 water bottle fill stations at schools and popular community facilities.

Container deposit laws (also known as bottle bills) require the collection of a deposit on beverage containers at the point of sale and refund the deposit when the container is returned.  Like plastic bag bans, container deposit laws have also been proven to cut down on plastic beverage bottle pollution.  According to NCEL, ten states and Guam have a deposit-refund system for beverage containers.

Beverage companies should support container deposit laws if they are serious about delivering on their recycled content promises. While beverage companies and their trade associations have fought bottle bills in the past, plastic recycling experts have stated that container deposit laws are needed to collect sufficient used PET bottles to meet the company goals for recycled content.  An industry expert analyzed recycle rates and clearly states in this November 13, 2018 Amcor podcast that voluntary and curbside recycling will not collect sufficient PET bottle material.

The Container Recycling Institute offers the Bottle Bill Toolkit to help create legislation.

What are we waiting for?

Another half of a dump truck of U.S. plastic waste entered the ocean in the ten minutes it took to read this article.  Proven solutions that will reduce U.S. plastic pollution exist and can be swiftly enacted. The success of plastic bag bans and plastic container deposit laws can be extended nationwide and to other most commonly polluted plastic items: EPS foam and other plastic food containers, plastic straws, plastic bottle caps, plastic lids and plastic food wrappers.

It’s time to accept what the facts tell us: plastic recycling is not a serious or realistic solution to reducing plastic pollution in the United States.

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Jan Dell, PE, is an independent chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a non-profit organization that collaborates with shareholders and environmental groups on initiatives to reduce plastic pollution. Jan has worked with companies in diverse industries to implement sustainable business and climate resiliency practices in more than 40 countries. Appointed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Jan was a member of the US Federal Committee that led the 3rd National Climate Assessment from 2010 to 2014 and the Vice Chair of the US Federal Advisory Committee on the Sustained National Climate Assessment in 2016-2017.

[1] Extrapolation of Jambeck, et al data to 2019 and assumes large dump truck capacity of 28,000 pounds.

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