Plastic Mythbusters

Is it true that most plastic waste is recycled, so using a lot of plastic is not a problem?

Certainly False Button

This claim is certainly false. This statement is very far from reality. Just a small percentage of plastic waste is recycled and turned into material for new products. The majority of plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated (burnt) or ends up in the environment. This is one of the reasons why the current level of plastics consumption is so problematic.

Detailed information

It is estimated that over 9 billion metric tons of virgin, fossil-based plastics were produced between 1950 and 2017. For comparison, this is the same mass as 900,000 Eiffel Towers or 1.2 billion elephants. Half of these plastics have been produced since 2004. Until the end of 2018, almost seven billion tons of plastic waste had been generated, consisting of plastic polymer resin, polymer fibers, and plastics additives. Biobased and recycled plastics are not yet included in these figures.

Only 10 percent of these waste plastics generated between 1950 and 2018 were recycled. 14 percent were incinerated (burned). 76 percent ended up in landfills, dumps or the natural environment. This can cause ecological, societal and human-health issues.

Recycling and incineration rates differ around the world, and depend on the way they are calculated. Sometimes recycling rates refer only to the separately collected plastic waste, so they exclude a lot of plastic waste that ends up in the household waste or as part of construction and demolition (C&D) waste.

For 2014, Geyer et al. (2020) estimate that 30 percent of plastics were recycled in Europe, 25 percent in China, and 9 percent in the United States. The same year, the researchers calculated that around 39 percent of plastic waste was incinerated in Europe, 30 percent in China, and 16 percent in the United States.

In some places, recycling rates have decreased since then. For example, according to the US Department of Energy, only 5 percent of the United States’ plastic waste got recycled in the year 2019.

Globally, just 9 percent of plastic waste were recycled in 2019, and 19 percent incinerated, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 49 percent were landfilled and the rest escaped waste management systems. Among the OECD members in the European Union, it was only 14 percent. The OECD projects the global share of recycling to rise to only 17 percent by 2060.

One of the problems causing the low recycling rates is the price of virgin plastic. Virgin plastic is new plastic made directly from a carbon source, such as oil or gas. Since it’s so cheap to make plastics from fossil fuels and more expensive to recycle, it’s economical for companies to use new rather than recycled plastics.

Materials with several layers of different kinds of plastics are especially hard to recycle. The huge variety of different plastics and their combination with other materials, as well as the cost of collection and logistics make it difficult to set up cost-efficient recycling systems.

In order to increase recycling rates, experts call for:
- a simplification of plastic materials.
- improving recycling technologies.
- setting targets for recycled content in products.
- adopting extended producer responsibility (EPR).
- redirecting subsidies to support recycling.

It is important to note that recycling doesn’t prevent plastics from becoming waste. It just prolongs their lifespan. Globally, only an estimated 14 percent of plastics were recycled more than once so far. In mechanical recycling, plastic polymers degrade. This means they cannot be kept in the loop infinitely. In order to achieve the desired quality, virgin polymers frequently have to be mixed with recycled material. Many used plastics are not turned into products of the same quality and kind, but rather downcycled to inferior products.

Recycling plants can themselves cause pollution, by emitting microplastics and accumulating chemicals from the original plastic products in the recycled material.

Expert check

Thanks toHenning Wilts of Wuppertal Institute Research Division Circular Economy for scientific fact-checking.

Updated on: October 31, 2023