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Only 5% of the Plastic You Throw Away Is Actually Recycled, Studies Show

Published: May 5, 2022
Plastic trash is used to make a sign in Anacostia Park March 21, 2019 in Washington, DC. A report, published on May 4 by Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, says that just five to six percent of all plastics are actually recycled; the remainder either ends up in landfills (85 percent) or incinerators (10 percent). (Image: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

According to a report, published on May 4 by Last Beach Cleanup (LBC) and Beyond Plastics, between 5 and 6 percent of the plastic Americans threw away in 2021 was actually recycled; the rest either ended up in a landfill (85 percent) or was incinerated (10 percent). 

A U.S. Department of Energy (DoE)  research paper, which analyzed data from 2019, came to the same conclusion; a mere 5 percent of plastics are being recycled. 

The researchers wrote that landfilled plastic waste in the U.S. has been increasing for numerous reasons, including “low recycling rates, population growth, consumer preference for single-use plastics, and low disposal fees in certain parts of the country.”

The problem has also been exacerbated by changes in the global recycling market, including China’s 2017 ban on most U.S. plastic exports. 

Jan Dell, founder of LBC said that China used to accept ships full of plastic waste from the U.S., but that now without that option, more plastic is ending up in landfills and incinerators, since few U.S. facilities have the capacity to recycle plastic.

Deceptive practices

The LBC report blasts plastic industry leaders for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices saying that the plastics industry has, “waged a decades-long misinformation campaign to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable,” and governments are starting to take notice. 

On April 28, California Attorney General Rob Bonta accused fossil fuel and petrochemical companies of promoting recycling despite knowing that the practice would never be able to keep up with soaring plastic production. 

“Enough is enough,” Bonta said in a statement, adding that, “For more than a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis.”

The state has launched an investigation into the matter, issuing a subpoena to ExxonMobil looking for information relating to the company’s alleged role in a “decades-long plastics deception campaign.” The investigation seeks to determine if the plastic industry’s actions have violated California state law.

According to Grist, both ExxonMobil and the American Chemistry Council, a plastic industry trade group, have rejected Bonta’s accusations, and in response are vowing to remain focused on “improving waste management, including through better plastic recycling.”

Relentless focus on the future potential for recycling

According to the LBC report, “The relentless focus on the future potential for recycling to reduce plastic waste and pollution flies in the face of the hard facts.”

The researchers point to several “hard facts” that undermine the idea that industry and the public at large can address the plastics crisis under business as usual circumstances. 

The report points out that since 1980 plastic waste generation per person in the U.S. has soared from 60 pounds per person per year to 218 pounds per person per year in 2018 and asserts that “not one single type of plastic food service item, including the polypropylene cup lids that Starbucks touts as recyclable, has ever been recyclable per the FTC Green Guide legal definition.”

Toxicity risks associated with recycling plastic and “insurmountable contamination, environmental, and economic barriers” are cited as reasons why efficient and meaningful plastics recycling remains elusive.


In the study, bans on single-use plastics, or pay-per-use fees are touted as some of the most effective measures governments can implement to address the plastics crisis. 

A 25-year study, conducted by the United Kingdom’s Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science found that “significantly fewer plastic bags” were found on the seafloor after European countries introduced bag fees.

In 2019, after Australia banned supermarkets from providing single use plastic bags, their usage fell by 80 percent across the continent. 

When a 5-cent bag fee was enacted in Suffolk County, New York, researchers observed that the number of bags found polluting shorelines in the state fell steeply.

In Austin Texas, an Austin Resource Recovery study found that a Single-Use Bag Ordinance was successful in reducing the amount of plastic bag litter in the city, recording a 90 percent drop in plastic bag litter in the first six months following the enactment of the ordinance. However, the ordinance has since been nullified due to a Texas Supreme Court decision

And, in San Jose, California, plastic bag litter decreased by 89 percent in the state’s storm drain system, 60 percent in creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in city streets approximately two years after a single-use plastic bag ban took effect.