Greenpeace report finds most plastic goes to landfills as production ramps up A new report from Greenpeace found that people may be putting plastic into recycling bins — but almost none of it is actually being recycled. Meanwhile, plastic production is ramping up.

Recycling plastic is practically impossible — and the problem is getting worse

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And right off the top, I want to be clear here. We have got some frustrating news for you. You see, the vast majority of plastic that Americans are putting into recycling bins is not actually getting recycled. That's the finding of a new report out today from Greenpeace. And this may not be surprising for those of you who have followed NPR's own reporting, which found that oil and gas companies misled the public for years into believing that plastic could be recycled, even though they knew it wasn't true. Plastic waste, I mean, it's now expected to triple by 2060, all while the amount of plastic that's recycled into new things continues to drop dramatically. Here to sort through all of this is NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan. Hi, Laura.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so this is going to be really confusing for a lot of people, right? Like, we all see these recycling trucks pull up to the curb, haul away plastic, all these specialized recycling bins in parks and airports. Like, what is going on?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. So for 30 years now, the public has hoped with every bottle and strawberry container and yogurt cup that they thoughtfully put in those bins that that plastic was going to go on to a happy new life somewhere as something else. But the truth is that it's not, and it likely never has. Greenpeace's report confirms what a lot of environmentalists have been saying for a while now, that aside from a few soda bottles and containers like milk jugs, there are no markets for used plastic trash. It's not economically feasible to collect it, to sort it or to sell it. And new plastic is cheap, and it's easy to make.

CHANG: I mean, it's kind of breathtaking. What about all the plans that we have heard about over the years for soda bottles and other plastics to be in some so-called closed loop where. Like. The plastic is recycled and reused again and again? What happened to that?

SULLIVAN: Right. So what the science is showing now is that even in the best scenarios, plastic can only be recycled once or twice before the chemicals break down. And this Greenpeace report notes that that plastic also becomes more toxic every time it's broken down. It's very different from steel and aluminum. I mean, you can melt and reform steel and aluminum for decades. And, you know, even if you do turn a few soda bottles into new shoes or jackets or carpets, it's just a temporary stop. Eventually, those shoes and carpets are going to become trash, too.

CHANG: Well, then, Laura, if none of this plastic is really recyclable, then where is that recycling truck taking it?

SULLIVAN: What the Greenpeace report found is that even though it may first go to a recycling center on that truck, that most of it is just getting landfilled, and some of it is winding up in poor countries or in the oceans. This is backed up by a lot of government numbers. After three decades of trying to recycle, the amount of plastic that actually gets turned into something new has now dropped to around 5%. And that will probably continue to get worse because every year, the amount of plastic produced increases. I wanted to get a sense of what this really looks like on the ground, so I reached out to Trent Carpenter, who runs Southern Oregon Sanitation. Carpenter told his customers a couple years ago that when it came to plastic, they could only put soda bottles and jugs into their recycling bins - no other plastic.

TRENT CARPENTER: We really had to re-educate individuals that a great deal of that material is ending up in a landfill. It's not going to a recycling facility and being recycled. It's going to a recycling facility and then being landfilled someplace else because they can't do anything with that material.

SULLIVAN: Carpenter told me that putting most plastic in a bin is just an expensive way to send it to a landfill.

CHANG: Then why are so many trash haulers and even officials saying, go ahead, put your clamshells and all this other plastic into recycling bins?

SULLIVAN: Right. I asked Carpenter this very question. This is what he told me.

CARPENTER: It's easier, to be perfectly honest. Politically, it's easier to just say, gosh, we're going to take everything and we think we can get it recycled and then look the other way. That's greenwashing at its best.

CHANG: I mean, this is really depressing. What are people supposed to do?

SULLIVAN: Environmentalists really want to bring the conversation back to deposit bills, which can improve the conversation for plastic bottles. But they really want people to look at what they're holding in their hands and saying this is actually trash. It's not going to be turned into something else.

CHANG: That is NPR's Laura Sullivan. Thank you so much, Laura.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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