Plastic Recycling Facts and Figures

Man sorting through plastics in a recycling facility
••• Monty Rakusen, Getty Images

Plastic recycling has become an increasingly important sector of recycling, but it would be hard to declare it a great success story from an environmental perspective. Less than 9% of plastic generation from the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste stream was recycled in 2018. Ocean plastic and plastic shopping bags still present major global challenges.

Businesses that want to have a positive environmental impact should stay informed on the global impact of plastic waste and the state of plastic recycling. Here is an overview of the industry.

Environmental Facts

  • It takes hundreds of years to decompose plastic items in landfills.
  • According to the EPA, 8.7% of plastic material generated in the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) stream was recycled in 2018. Another 15.8% was combusted for energy, while 75.6% was sent to landfills.
  • Plastic recycling results in significant energy savings compared with the production of new plastics using virgin material.
  • PlasticsEurope reports that 9.4 million tonnes of plastics were recycled in Europe in 2018.
  • According to the EPA, 29.1% of recyclable PET plastic bottles and 19.3% of recyclable HDPE plastic bottles were actually recycled in 2018.
  • Only 13.6% of plastic packaging was recycled in 2018.
  • 3.13 million tons of PET plastic were discarded in the U.S. in 2018.
  • Each year, about $25 million is spent in the state of California to dispose of plastic waste in landfills.

Ocean Plastic Facts

  • Almost 4.8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world's oceans annually, according to a 2015 study from the University of California Santa Barbara.
  • There were 1.9 million grocery bags and other plastics bags collected in the 2018 International Coastal Cleanup.
  • The plastic waste that is thrown into seas every year can kill as many as 1 million sea creatures.
  • Over time, plastic breaks down into tiny particles called microplastics, which are found on shorelines around the world.
  • According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
  • An article published in the journal Plos One estimates that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 260,000 metric tons, are afloat in oceans.

Recycling Economic Facts

  • There were 359 million tonnes of plastics produced worldwide in 2018.
  • Only a very small percentage of recycled bottles are used to make new bottles. Coca-Cola sources only 20% of its packaging from recycled material, while Nestlé Waters North America uses just over 16% recycled content.
  • According to the American Chemistry Council, more than 60% of Americans have access to different plastic recycling programs.