Greenpeace study trashes plastic recycling

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/vchal
Nov 02, 2022

For decades in the U.S. people have been asked to separate out their plastics and recycle them in the interest of preserving the environment. Now, at a time when customers and retailers have sustainability on the mind more than ever, a major environmental group is saying that the practice of plastic recycling just does not work.

Not only is most plastic in the U.S. not recycled, but cannot be recycled, according to the new Greenpeace study. In 2021, U.S. households created an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste and only recycled 2.4 million. Last year, only between five and six percent of plastic waste was recycled, down from a peak of 9.5 percent in 2014. But even when the U.S. was “recycling” plastic at its peak, tons of waste were sent to China and burned or dumped while being marked as recycled.

Greenpeace touts reuse/refill models as the path to sustainability, not plastic recycling, which major consumer packaged goods companies have promoted as environmentally sound.

The CPG industry has been doing some research into environmentally friendly alternatives to plastics. Keurig Dr. Pepper in March announced plans to pilot a fully compostable and recycled paper soda bottle in the U.S. And in May, Kraft Heinz announced plans to pilot a paper-based ketchup bottle, according to Consumer Goods.

Startups have also jumped in to try to reduce reliance on plastic containers with new innovative models. Loop, for instance, allows customers to purchase products in reusable packaging and, after using them, leave the packaging outside to be picked up for sterilization and reuse, a throwback to the milkman model of earlier decades.

During this year’s Halloween season, one CPG company even took steps to reduce season-specific waste from candy wrappers, according to an ABC News report. Snickers manufacturer Mars distributed 17,400 candy wrapper disposal bags nationally so people could deposit wrappers and send them to a specialty recycling plant, which processes them into bags for cleaning up after dogs. Even if all the wrapper disposal bags were used, however, it would only result in two tons of wrappers being recycled.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do the findings about the inefficacy of plastic recycling mean for retailers and brands trying to pursue more environmentally sustainable operations? Do you think such findings will impact the retail/CPG packaging world significantly and push the development of more compostable and/or reusable packaging?

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23 Comments on "Greenpeace study trashes plastic recycling"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Plastic “recycling” is a misnomer. The amount of plastic that resides in landfills and oceans is proof positive that it’s not working. It’s encouraging to see retail/CPG companies taking meaningful steps to minimize the environmental impact, but much more needs to be done. Ultimately, consumers will force retailers/CPG companies to undertake activities to reduce waste and improve sustainability, and this will help motivate companies to develop new, even more environmentally sustainable approaches to packaging.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

It kills me to see so many people carrying their lunch back from a restaurant, salad place, etc. not only in plastic bags but most in plastic containers that are then put into paper bags with handles promoting the store it was purchased in. How many of those containers and bags are actually re-used or recycled? I would venture to guess that most are just thrown out to pile up in landfills. I hate to say it, but so many of those office workers are young and I would think are should be more environmentally aware. CPG companies certainly need to do their part, but consumers need to wake up to this growing crisis.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Being environmentally aware and environmentally active are leagues away from each other.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
My initial response to the Greenpeace study is, who didn’t know this? For the better part of three decades I’ve been beating this drum, largely with no response other than a few noise complaints. Not only does plastic recycling not work, as Mark Ryski notes on this page, it has never worked and — in various incarnations such as the cornstarch/plastic bags, bottles, etc. — it has made things worse. With all due respect, depending on your level of cynicism, retailers and branders have at best been guilty of confusing good intentions with good science and at worst applying an opportunistic Band-Aid to a quite ;literally existential problem. So, and forgive me my deep cynicism, I don’t think “such findings” will move the needle, because similar data has been readily available for decades and all that happened is that retailers and branders ordered bigger, sexier Band-Aids. But the real problem is the consumer. Nothing is going to change until, and unless, there is REAL broad-based consumer adoption of refillable solutions and a rejection of today’s… Read more »
Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

So, what’s new? When I was with Hefty in the ’70s, we worked on bags that broke down in landfills. There was no success in that.

We congratulate and boast about companies that take environmental impact seriously. But each contribution is infinitesimal compared to the problem. The consumer must make a statement with their buying patterns. Sadly, they will not. I am not fond of government interference, but moves like banning Styrofoam cups and containers and plastic grocery sacks in NYC are the bigger steps that are needed.

David Spear
BrainTrust

The findings mean that not much is working, particularly, when a mere 5 percent to 6 ercent of plastic waste was recycled in 2021. Retailers and brands need to continue to invest in new packaging technologies that offer consumers the capability for reuse, which eliminates the need for throw-away and reinforces a mindset of accountability and responsibility.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

This issue has worried me for many years and is something I feel strongly about. In the UK there have been a number of media investigations looking at what happens to plastic waste collected for recycling with some of it shown to be exported to developing nations for processing – without governance to ensure it is properly processed. In some cases it has either been placed in landfills or manually processed by children and low-paid causal employees.

It is good that more visibility is being generated – I do believe this is a bigger issue than people realize. One of my relatives lives in another European country famed for excellent recycling programs — and even she is skeptical regarding how responsibly the plastics are recycled.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Funny, in a way. Miami and Miami Beach have outlawed plastic straws (yes, for real) and you can only get paper ones. And that brings up a problem that we haven’t addressed. They’re very inconvenient and fall apart mid-drink.

So, it’s imperative to use some innovation (hopefully we’ve come a ways since the ’70s) to make biodegradable products also “comfortable” to use. The retailer or manufacturer that leads that charge will gain customer trust forever.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Paula,

Part of the problem is that, in properly constructed landfills, nothing actually “degrades” as demonstrated in William Rathje and Cullen Murphy’s 2001 book, “Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage.” Yup, way back in 2001. And those readers of a certain age may remember when Rathje was the darling of the food industry speakers circuit for a year or two after the book appeared.

We’ve been describing the problem forever. The solution is to move away from all “disposable” solutions that end up in landfills, on roadsides, in the oceans, etc. Composting is one potential solution but, at best, it is a limited solution.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I didn’t read the book. I guess I’m too young! The straws degrade. They degrade before you finish your drink, FFS.

Now when I lived up north, someone had decided to cover the edges of their lawns, in the ’60s, with black plastic. Thirty-five years later (when I lived there), I was still uncovering it, under the weeds, and it was as shiny as the day they’d put it in. I would think there are degrees of degradation. But you know, it’s not my area of expertise.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Paula,

Of course you missed the book. Is was published before you were born. Yes, paper straws do degrade if they are wet, but if they don’t they still take between two to six months to degrade. Great if they aren’t in a landfill, not so good if they aren’t. The main problem — as you noted — is they degrade while being used, potentially creating choking hazards for small kids. From an environmental point of view — hard as it may to believe — they use more resources to produce than plastic straws and actually contribute higher greenhouse gas emissions. Paper straws are a greener solution, but not an actually green solution. BTW, straws make up 0.025 percent of the plastic that ends up in the oceans every year. So, the question might be, “Why do we need straws at all?”

storewanderer
Guest
3 months 7 hours ago

Talk to the dentist about the straws for consuming sugary drinks. For drinks without sugar, we don’t need straws. But we will need more paper towels for when the drink runs down our neck.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Until some federal regulations and mandates require retail and CPG firms to shift their packaging models from plastic to more compostable/reusable formats, then it will be a slow roll reducing our plastic usage. Unfortunately, the plastic recycling operating model is highly inefficient, considering that only 2.4 million tons of the total 51 million tons of plastic waste are recycled.

As Greenpeace indicated, the plastic recycling program is inefficient and costly. We need to, as a society, assess and mitigate the root cause of the problem where businesses are relentlessly using plastic. The conscious consumer and the paradigm shift to evolving to a more sustainable-driven society will have some impacts on the packaging decisions companies make. Ultimately it will take swift Federal regulations to make the impacts we need to drive meaningful change. Until then, we should expect more of the same results.

Mark Self
BrainTrust

I would love it if this problem were so easy to fix that all we needed was more regulation and — mischief managed! The fact that this problem has not been fixed by the private sector is (to me) very troubling because it is an indication of how difficult finding a solution is.

Al McClain
Staff

It’s sad to say, but most consumers don’t care. Sure, they may put out recyclables for pick up when it is convenient, but look at what’s put in the bins versus what is supposed to go in them. Retailers need to lead but many don’t. Panera is a good example. They say their food is “clean” but they package most things, including salads and drinks, in plastic. McDonald’s uses plastic cups and straws.
This will only get better when enough consumers are disgusted by our collective behavior, which they aren’t yet, unfortunately.

storewanderer
Guest
3 months 7 hours ago

Don’t forget the grocers/Walmart/Target specifically in CA/OR/WA pushing super thick plastic bags of the old t-shirt style just like the old thin bags, that are supposedly “reusable” but most customers don’t reuse them at all. Many of these bags have messages on them about how great they are for the environment; a Dollar Tree or Walmart bag with graphics of trees on it, etc. No paper bags available. Just super thick plastic ones that many consumers use once, just like the old thin ones. Bag tax on the old thin bags as is done in Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington DC, among others, may be a better approach if the goal is really to reduce plastic waste.

However, in CA it is state law that plastic bags have 40%+ recycled content. Why not 100%? And why not apply that rule to the bottles, cups, etc. too?

Mark Self
BrainTrust

The study confirms what many suspected all along: all of these efforts to put this in that container and that in this container probably signal more about our collective guilt regarding so much of our consumption being disposable as opposed to believing we are actually “having an impact” on anything meaningful. The inconvenient truth is miles of plastic swirling around in the ocean somewhere, trash lining our roads, etc.

I mean — I enjoy the convenience of having the Starbucks tea waiting for me in a disposable cup (ordered on my mobile app) as opposed to walking in there with my reusable cup, waiting in line, getting the tea, waiting 10+ minute for it to cool down and so on, which makes me a collaborator here. Behavior change is difficult.

As to the question of behavior change in retail/CPG I believe (sadly) the only likely outcome is packaging “virtue signaling” like “made from 50% recycled blah blah blah” and so on. At least in the short term.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

With some exceptions, consumers don’t care about plastic packaging that is compostable, reusable or recyclable. They want convenience, and it’s convenient for them to simply toss plastic packaging. Earth has a problem.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

We’ve long — always, really — had a “reusable” container: It’s called a (glass) bottle. But it’s also heavier, breaks easily and a lot of resources are consumed in re-using it (as anyone who’s ever spent gallons of water washing out a bottle can testify). I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I’m not sure what is accomplished by naysaying what small victories have been achieved.

storewanderer
Guest
3 months 7 hours ago
Glass bottles add significant cost to transport of product, break easily, and have various other problems. I think they preserve product flavor better though. When I was much younger, I thought I had the solution to cleaning glass bottles out using boiling water until I cracked some…. There is a product I like very much, called Tejava produced out in CA, a 1 liter glass unsweetened iced tea that is microbrewed and very smooth/strong. People who like sweet drinks will say it tastes like dirt. This product also comes in a plastic bottle (.5 L) and for some reason the one in the plastic just doesn’t have the same taste or smoothness as the one in the glass. Anyway, earlier this year, there was a shortage of glass bottles. Tejava went empty at various stores for a few months out in the CA region. I was very disappointed. Fortunately they decided to ride out the glass bottle shortage (would have been real easy to move to plastic 1 L bottles…), and they are back now,… Read more »
storewanderer
Guest
3 months 7 hours ago
The recycling needs to be fixed (but how? … if it was fixable, the private sector would have already addressed the issue…). Maybe if the price of oil stays up long enough it will become more cost effective to do the recycling. One of the issues when oil is low is it is cheaper for these folks making disposable plastics to just make them out of all new materials (not recycled content). But that is more of a hope and eventually oil will come back down again. Most of the “reusable” solutions pushed are Made in China or otherwise imported. Things like the thin plastic bottles, plastic cups that are single use, thin plastic bags, are US-made. McDonalds for decades used paper drink cups. Now in the past couple years in some US regions they moved to plastic cups (so did Wendys). What happened? All those little “thin plastic bag bans” some states did, caused some “paper bag shortages.” Paper bags and paper cups use the same pulp (uses a ton of water) model to… Read more »
Brad Halverson
Guest

The positive needs to be stated; we’ve made strides from the ’70s and ’80s when most waste was simply going into garbage bins. Many American cities and communities now have residents trained to separate trash, recycling and compost. This is notable. And yes, there is room for more.

Yet progress shouldn’t all fall on consumers with more random government mandates and bans. If local governments are knowingly collecting recycling every two weeks and then apparently not doing anything with 95% of it, then it’s on them to work at state and federal levels to create and coordinate effective use/reuse chains. Free markets alone won’t create post-use chains because there isn’t enough profit or incentive in it.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Following up on yesterday’s discussion … it isn’t just plastics … it isn’t just packaging materials … It isn’t just apparel. We can add furniture to the list?

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/31/realestate/fast-furniture-clogged-landfills.html

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