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‘Plastic recycling is a dead-end street’, claims Greenpeace

Beverage giants champion the circular model of recycling plastic bottles and using recycled content in new bottles as a way to reduce plastic waste and use of virgin plastic. Has the beverage industry got it all wrong?

A new report from Greenpeace USA criticises this model: calling for an industry-wide rethink and a complete shift to reuse and refill.

“Companies can no longer use recycling as a smokescreen to divert attention from the systemic changes that are needed,” it says.

Much of the packaging sustainability focus in the beverage industry to date has been on recycling and using recycled content. But Greenpeace says the strategy fails at the first hurdle in that, in fact, no type of plastic in the packaging in the US meets the definition of recyclable used by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy’

And it says recycling of plastic waste fails because it is ‘difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, environmentally harmful to reprocess, often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and not economical to recycle.’

Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner, said: “Corporations have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.”

Is recyclable plastic actually recycled? (not really)

The report, ‘Circular Claims Fall Flat Again’ (2022 edition) covers all plastics used in F&B and other common household items, although the environmental advocate has consistently targeted plastic bottles (with high-profile campaigns against Coca-Cola in particular due to its size and continues to do so in this latest edition.

The report notes overall plastic recycling was estimated to have declined to about 5–6% in 2021, down from a high of 9.5% in 2014 and 8.7% in 2018.

Companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have committed to ensuring all of their packaging will become 100% recyclable in the near future.

But Greenpeace questions the actual recycling levels of PET #1 (used in plastic bottles) and HDPE #2 (milk bottles and juice bottles). While companies tend to use the term ‘recyclable’ in meaning that the material used can, theoretically, be recycled: that’s a long way from meaning that it actually is recycled or that appropriate recycling infrastructure even exists.

“By Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy (EMF NPE), an item must have a 30% recycling rate to receive the “recyclable” classification, “says Greenpeace

“Two of the most common plastics in the U.S. that are often considered recyclable – PET #1 and HDPE #2, typically bottles and jugs – fall well below the EMF NPE threshold, only achieving reprocessing rates of 20.9% and 10.3%, respectively.

“For every other type of plastic, the reprocessing rate is less than 5%. While PET #1 and HDPE #2 were previously thought of as recyclable, this report finds that being accepted by a recycling processing plant does not necessarily result in them being recycled – effectively negating the recyclability claim.

Reuse and refill

Greenpeace is calling on companies to ‘urgently’ move to reuse systems and packaging-free approached: asking them to target at least 50% reusable packaging by 2030.

“Sectors for which a switch to reuse is comparatively easy – such as soft drinks, mineral water, alcoholic beverages, and coffee chains – should set more ambitious targets,” ​it adds.

It also wants to see a standardised reusable packaging system and shared reuse systems and infrastructure.

Greenpeace believes that companies must take action now to eliminate single-use plastics and packaging and not rely on false solutions such as recycling (advanced, chemical, or otherwise), recycled content, and material substitution.

Viable alternatives to single-use plastics and packaging, such as reuse and refill systems, exist and need to be rapidly scaled up and invested in by the world’s biggest plastic polluters.

“These companies can no longer use recycling as a smokescreen to divert attention from the systemic changes that are needed.” Read the full article