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Understanding the Real Recycling Rate in America | Numbers Uncovered

It is easy to get discouraged when we hear that the plastic recycling rate in the US is as low as 5%. Only the most determined among us are likely to continue to recycle at such low rates. After all, it is disheartening when you try to do your part but all the while you feel that your efforts are in vain and, at best, your recycled trash is going to a landfill.

But that isn’t what’s happening. If we look at the plastics that actually make up most of consumer packaging (PET, HDPE, and PP) we see that they have a 21% recycling rate, according to the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR).

Plastics Defined

PET plastic packaging commonly used for water bottles, mouthwash bottles etc. resin identification code -1
HDPE plastic packaging used for such items like detergent, household cleaning products etc. resin identification code – 2
PP plastic packaging    

***Of the three, PP has the lowest recycling rate.

So, what does the 5% recycling rate, so often cited, account for?

How could there be such a difference in percentage if people are reporting on the same thing?

Well, they aren’t - they aren’t reporting on the same thing.

The reason for the difference in the recycling rates is because the 5% rate not only accounts for consumer plastic packaging but also for all other plastic put into the US consumer marketplace every year. So that includes your favorite plastic cup you’ve had for eons that you don’t plan to throw out, the plastic in your keyboard, and the plastic on playgrounds. In other words, the 5% rate that’s being reported includes more than just the plastic that can be and is actually recycled at curbside.

If you’ve been led to believe that the majority of the plastic you put into the recycling bin is headed to the landfills, then perhaps it is worth listening to the people who are actually engaged with recycling on a daily basis. When responding to a claim that the majority of the plastic we recycle goes to the landfill, the CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Association made it a point to clarify that, “that is not true. Our members own the majority of recycling facilities in the country. And we can confirm that recyclables get recycled.”

Of course, this is not to say a 5% recycling rate (or the 8.5% recycling rate reported by the EPA based on 2018 data) is anything to be proud of, but rather, hopefully this will lead people to advocate for better overall waste management.

It’s also important not to seem like a 21% recycling rate for most consumer packaging is reason to celebrate… far from it. But it is to say that our collective efforts are not in vain and to push on. Because cynicism that leads down the road of apathy is unfortunate - but cynicism that leads down the road of apathy based on misinformation is tragic. So, don’t despair continue to stay informed and know your efforts are making a difference especially where it counts!

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