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Plastics

Very Little Plastic Will Ever be Recycled

20 June 2022

The United States in 2021 had a dismal recycling rate of about 5 percent for post-consumer plastic waste, down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014, when the U.S. exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China and counted it as recycled, even though much of it wasn’t.

The first problem is that there are thousands of kinds of plastics, each with its own characteristics. They all include different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing. High-density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low-density polyethylene (LDPE#4), polypropylene (PP#5), and polystyrene (PS#6) all must be separated for recycling.

Also plastics include toxic additives and absorb chemicals, and are generally collected in curb-side bins filled with possibly dangerous materials such as plastic pesticide containers. Finally, plastic recycling is simply not economical; it costs more to recycle than to make new plastic. Burning or banning plastic might be the only ways to reduce plastic waste.

Research and Markets offers more information on this topic:

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