Environmental Defense Fund Exposes "Sorry State" of Plastics Recycling

October 21, 1997
(21 October, 1997 — Washington, DC) The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has released a detailed analysis of the latest recycling figures for plastics packaging — based on data reported by the American Plastics Council (APC) — that documents an actual decline in an already low plastics recycling rate.

EDF’s analysis, Something to Hide: The Sorry State of Plastics Recycling, stands in stark contrast to the rosy, highly selective picture painted by APC in its press materials issued last spring — months before the council’s full report was completed. EDF obtained a copy of the report this year despite APC’s new policy denying the public access to its report.

“When APC’s numbers are examined, it becomes clear why they would want to hide this report,” said Dr. Richard Denison, EDF senior scientist and author of the analysis. “It vividly documents the continuing neglect of plastics recycling as the abandoned stepchild of the plastics industry.”

EDF’s analysis reveals the following facts about the current state of plastics recycling:

  • Less than 10% of plastics packaging is being recycled. As shown in the attached chart, that rate is a third that of the next closest packaging category, glass.
  • Again in contrast to all other major packaging types, growth in recycling of plastics packaging has been at a snail’s pace over the last decade, capped with an actual decline over the past year.
  • Even plastic bottle recycling — the mainstay of plastics recycling and the only numbers APC mentions in its public materials —  declined in 1996. Recycling of plastic soda bottles — the industry’s only real success story — dropped sharply for the second consecutive year, from 45% in 1994 and 41% in 1995 to 34% in 1996 — the lowest level since 1990.
  • Of particular note is the recycling rate for polystyrene packaging and food service items, which has hovered around 1.5% for the last several years, a rate far below the polystyrene industry’s much-touted goal set in 1990 — and abandoned last year — of achieving a 25% recycling rate by 1995.

EDF’s analysis found that the cumulative effect of this poor showing by the plastics industry year after year was most telling of the state of plastics recycling. Each year from 1990 to 1996 — for every additional pound of plastic packaging that was recycled, nearly 4 pounds of additional virgin plastic packaging was produced on average. All told this decade, over 13 times more virgin plastic packaging was produced than was recycled.

“Producers of every other type of packaging — glass, aluminum, steel and paper — have stepped up to the plate by investing the dollars needed to incorporate recovered materials back into the mainstream of production,” said Denison. “The plastics industry sinks its dollars into its latest national PR campaign to tell us all the ways that ‘plastics make it possible,’ while trying to make it impossible for the public to learn the truth about how little it has done for recycling.”