This article appeared in the December 2022 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.
I’ll start by saying this: I’m a long-time supporter of Greenpeace.
For years, I’ve contributed to the group by having a modest amount deducted from my checking account each month. I do this because I think it’s critical that our society have strong, independent environmental organizations that do not rely heavily, or at all, on corporate money.
I’m also supportive of Greenpeace USA’s recent entry into the plastics waste and pollution conversation – the U.S. (and world) has long needed louder voices demanding that we rethink consumption patterns and move to a future with less new plastic production.
But a much-cited plastic waste report recently released by Greenpeace crossed a critical line for me.
The “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again” analysis moves beyond using strong language or powerful publicity efforts and instead twists data to such a degree that the organization ends up printing numerical falsehoods in black and white.
By now, most in the recycling industry have seen the national news stories spawned by the Greenpeace report’s release on Oct. 24.
A few of the headlines: “Recycling plastic is practically impossible – and the problem is getting worse” (NPR). “Plastic packaging isn’t really ‘recyclable’ in the US” (The Verge). “Plastics recycling a ‘failed concept,’ study says” (CBS News).
The Greenpeace report touches on a number of concerns related to plastics recycling – growing volumes of waste generated and possible toxicity complications, for instance. But it is the central question of plastics recycling efficacy that sits at the center of the analysis, and it is certainly this point that the media have found most compelling.
When it comes to the effectiveness of the national plastics recovery system, a major data point put forth by the report (and re-reported in most of the ensuing articles) is that only 5% to 6% of plastics are effectively recycled annually in the U.S.
This is the same number that was noted by activist groups The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics in a separate report in May (The Last Beach Cleanup contributed to the Greenpeace study).
That number is notably lower than the U.S. EPA’s reported 8.5% U.S. plastics recycling rate for 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.
Both the 8.5% EPA stat and the 5-6% environmental NGO number are assessing the recovery percentage of all plastics, by weight, that are put into the U.S. consumer marketplace each year. This total includes packaging, but it also includes the material used to make the stapler on my desk, the vinyl siding on my neighbor’s house and the ever-growing other plastic applications showing up in modern life.
There is plenty to say about how to best assess the recovery of all the different plastics in our world (and whether recycling rates are even the best indicator of those products’ environmental impact), but 8.5% and 5% in many ways tell us the same story: The weight of plastic collected in the U.S. each year is a tiny fraction of all the plastic produced.
I know of no one in recycling who would dispute the fact that the overall plastics recycling rate is distressingly low, or who would say our current framework for managing plastic throughout its life cycle is in any way optimized.
Not even soda bottles?
It is a different set of numbers in the Greenpeace report, however, that raises alarms.
Let’s start by going back to some of the media reports and seeing how reporters interpreted what the Greenpeace verbiage conveyed about some well-known pieces of the plastics recycling stream.
The third paragraph of NPR’s story starts with this sentence: “Greenpeace found that no plastic – not even soda bottles, one of the most prolific items thrown into recycling bins – meets the threshold to be called ‘recyclable.’”
Meanwhile, the second sentence in The Verge article reads, “The state of plastic recycling in the US is so abysmal that no plastic packaging can even be considered recyclable.”
If you are an operator of a plastics recycling facility or a local recycling coordinator who determines what is acceptable in a municipal program, those statements likely seem absurd.
Yes, the industry has collection, contamination and market issues aplenty. But any recycling professional will tell you without hesitation that a clear PET bottle is recyclable.
So how exactly is Greenpeace making this non-recyclable claim? In part, by bringing in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a U.K.-based group that over the past several years has coordinated plastic packaging companies (and other stakeholders) in a New Plastics Economy initiative geared toward plastics sustainability.
A key part of this effort has been public commitments on the part of some of the world’s biggest brands in which they state they will do their part to improve recycling and reduce the use of virgin resin. Among the pledges is a commitment by each company to ensure 100% of plastic packaging is recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025.
The New Plastics Economy makes it pretty clear how packaging stakeholders should be judging whether a type of their packaging can actually be considered recyclable – and thus allowed to be counted toward the wider 100% recyclable/compostable/reusable goal.
In 2020, the group created a “Definitions” document that says a product’s recyclability can be determined through the following question: “Does that packaging achieve a 30% post-consumer recycling rate in multiple regions, collectively representing 400 million inhabitants?”
Greenpeace brings that 30% number into its report, using it as the standard a product should meet to be deemed recyclable. This is a slick move. Brands will have little ability to argue with a definition of recyclability that they themselves have already agreed to.
Time to compare
The big question, then, is where recycling rates for different plastic packaging formats sit in relation to that 30% number.
An obvious place to start looking for comparative data points would be the litany of studies that have sought to outline the recycling rates for plastic packaging in the U.S.
The U.S. EPA’s numbers for 2018 (again, the most recent year available) show that PET bottles had a nationwide recycling rate of 29.1%, and natural HDPE bottles had a rate of 29.3% (these numbers do not include combustion with energy recovery). Other plastic packaging types were, not surprisingly, significantly lower: Polypropylene containers, for instance, had a recycling rate of 8% in 2018, according to EPA.
The plastics industry also publishes recycling statistics for specific types of packaging. The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) issued a report earlier this year that showed the PET bottle recycling rate in 2020 was 27.1%, down 1.2 percentage points from 2019. APR stated the HDPE bottle recycling rate in the U.S. in 2020 was 28.8%, a drop of 2.1 percentage points from 2019.
(APR owns Resource Recycling, Inc.)
The National Association for PET Container Resources, meanwhile, reported the PET bottle recycling rate was 26.6% in the U.S. in 2020, a drop from 27.9% in 2019.
Looking at those numbers, it seems fairly clear that PET and HDPE bottles are hovering below the 30% threshold set by the New Plastics Economy.
Simply pointing out this fact would help create a strong case for brands and recycling stakeholders to make a stronger push to collect more material and process more of it effectively, enabling one piece of the New Plastics Economy 2025 commitments to be met in the U.S.
Meet the ‘reprocessing capacity’
But the Greenpeace report authors opt to find a different way to articulate the state of plastics recycling for key resins. They tabulate a number called the “reprocessing capacity” for both PET and HDPE, claiming that figure for PET is 20.9% and for HDPE it is 10.3%.
It is those two numbers that the report compares to the 30% recycling rate threshold spelled out by the New Plastics Economy. And the findings from this comparison, which are highlighted in the report’s executive summary, are what drove news outlets to disparage the recycling possibilities for all plastics in the curbside bin.
But what exactly is a “reprocessing capacity”?
In recycling or manufacturing, “capacity” generally refers to the amount of material a given operation is able to handle or produce over the course of a month or year. This is something far different than a recycling rate, which is the percentage of material recovered in a jurisdiction shown in relation to the total amount of waste generated in that material category.
In the body of its report, Greenpeace offers few details on how its reprocessing capacity numbers were developed, directing readers to the appendix for more information. There we learn that the report is essentially blending the concepts of a processing capacity and a recycling rate.
For PET, the analysis uses numbers from APR that indicate U.S. PET reclaimers had a total processing capacity in 2020 of 2.4 billion pounds. Greenpeace authors then use existing EPA data and an assumption of 4% annual growth to estimate that total U.S. PET waste in 2020 was 11.5 billion pounds.
By dividing 2.4 billion by 11.5 billion, you get the report’s 20.9% reprocessing capacity.
This reprocessing capacity metric, in other words, is one that Greenpeace has made up on its own. It’s an oddly formed version of a recycling rate (with a confusing name that implies capacity), and it’s one no other recycling stakeholders use. I work with recycling information all day every day, and it took me several hours to wrap my head around the concept. I can’t imagine many mainstream news reporters (or casual report readers) took the time to do the same.
The report uses a similar calculation for HDPE, dividing APR’s reported reclaimer capacity for that resin (1.3 billion pounds) by the U.S. EPA’s number for total U.S. generation of HDPE waste in 2018 (12.6 billion pounds), determining a reprocessing capacity of 10.3%.
Essentially, the report is saying that instead of relying on surveys and assumptions to try to determine how much recycled tonnage actually moves through the system in a given year, it’s better to just look at what the overall U.S. capacity for recycling a resin and compare that with the overall waste generation of that plastic type.
Digging into the ratio
But there are some serious flaws with Greenpeace’s reprocessing capacity maneuver.
Let’s first talk about the denominator.
In making the estimate for PET generation, the report uses as its starting point the PET number listed in the “all products” category of the 2018 EPA report.
It’s a reality that a lot of non-packaging PET items end up in the waste stream. According to 2018 EPA data, 28% of the PET waste stream was material other than PET packaging. For HDPE, the non-packaging segment of the waste stream was even higher, 40%.
In other words, the reprocessing capacity denominator in the Greenpeace equation is including a significant amount of material that is not packaging.
Now let’s turn to the reprocessing capacity numerator. As a reminder, this is the stated total capacity for U.S. PET and HDPE reclaimers. Any plastics recycling professional can tell you that when it comes to post-consumer material, these plants focus almost exclusively on the packaging segment of the stream and, more specifically, the bottle segment of packaging.
This is especially true for PET.
Certainly, there is great need to find economically viable processing solutions for the non-bottle segment of the plastics stream, but due to realities around collection systems, recycling technology and end market appetite, today’s reclaimer ecosystem is extremely bottle-oriented.
Greenpeace notes in the report that its recycling system research was conducted by “two registered professional chemical engineers and a recycling industry expert.” So they would know that a fair representation of a “best case scenario” for utilization of the existing reprocessing capacity would use EPA’s bottle/container number – not the “all products” number – for the denominator for PET and HDPE.
Also, let’s remember that a key point of the Greenpeace report is the market’s capability to handle PET and HDPE bottles in particular.
If we stick with the rest of Greenpeace’s methodology and use EPA bottle/container waste data instead of “all products” data, we get notably different reprocessing capacity figures: 35.3% for PET and 27.7% for HDPE.
Back to the 30% comparison
All that being said, one could maintain that Greenpeace’s denominator choice is sound. If we really want to know what our capability is for reprocessing a particular resin domestically, the argument might go, we can’t worry about what material format reclaimers are built to handle.
But even if we stay with that calculation method, then the report is problematic on another level: Comparing the reprocessing capacity number to the 30% recycling rate set by the New
Plastics Economy makes very little sense.
The verbiage from the New Plastics Economy in its definition of recyclability uses the term “packaging design,” not “resin type.” If The Coca-Cola Co. wants to determine whether one of its PET bottles can be considered recyclable in a given region under New Plastics Economy guidelines, the region in question must have a 30% recycling rate for PET bottles, not PET in general.
In fact, the New Plastics Economy “Definitions” document outlines three separate categories for PET bottles (beverage, food and other) and asks brands to use this level of packaging specificity when determining recyclability.
Greenpeace’s published reprocessing capacity numbers, developed with denominators that represent all PET and HDPE waste generation, are a clever way of determining where recycling rates may stand for individual resins. But these numbers are not at all compatible with the New Plastics Economy format and intentions in creating the definitions.
Greenpeace researchers, including their “recycling expert” contributor, are surely savvy enough to know this comparison falls flat.
Reuse is critical, but so is truth
The ultimate goal of the Greenpeace report is to highlight the fact that plastics recycling is fundamentally flawed – to the point where even bottles stand no chance of meeting basic recycling targets set by the consumer packaged goods industry.
By brushing away recycling as a sustainability option, the group (and others in the anti-plastics movement) strengthen the argument that plastic production must cease.
“Instead of continuing on this false path, companies in the U.S. and around the world must urgently phase out single-use plastics by replacing their packaging with reuse and refill systems and offering packaging-free products,” the report notes.
As I noted at the outset, a reuse-oriented packaging landscape is one I stand behind. But that is a massive undertaking, akin to removing all passenger cars from our roads and moving entirely to electric-based public transportation.
Just as we would need to move incrementally to that clean transportation dream (promote electric cars while scaling up infrastructure for trains, for instance), we have to take practical, realistic steps toward a stronger packaging future.
Given the needs of modern society, scaling up packaging recycling efforts that we know work is a clear-cut way to move the needle. And in this process, transparent data analysis is critical, so that stakeholders are shown what’s worth pursuing.
Ultimately, we need a variety of voices engaged on the plastic waste issue, and certainly the debate is not always going to be pretty. But societal conversation (no matter how impassioned) about any environmental or economic question is only going to be productive if the voices at the table at least try to be honest.
It’s in this realm of truth and transparency that Greenpeace has let down recycling stakeholders who are trying to bring solutions to the mix. It’s also let down individual financial supporters, like myself, who have trusted the group to fight the right way.
Dan Leif is the managing editor of Resource Recycling and can be contacted at [email protected]