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.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling." Accessed March 29, 2021.

  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Frequently Asked Questions About Plastic Recycling and Composting." Accessed March 29, 2021.

  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Tables and Figures," Page 11. Accessed March 29, 2021.

  4. PlasticsEurope. "Plastics—The Facts 2019: An Analysis of European Plastics Production, Demand and Waste Data," Page 9. Accessed March 29, 2021.

  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Tables and Figures," Page 10. Accessed March 29, 2021.

  6. State of California, Senate Committee on Environmental Quality. "Solid Waste Single-Use Carryout Bags," Page 5. Accessed March 29, 2021.

  7. UC Santa Barbara. "An Ocean of Plastic." Accessed March 29, 2021.

  8. Ocean Conservancy. "International Coastal Cleanup Report 2019," Page 2. Accessed March 29, 2021.

  9. UNESCO. "Facts and Figures on Marine Pollution." Accessed March 29, 2021.

  10. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. "New Plastics Economy Report Offers Blueprint to Design a Circular Future for Plastics." Accessed March 29, 2021.

  11. Marcus Eriksen et. al. "Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea." Plos One. Accessed March 29, 2021.

  12. PlasticsEurope. "Plastics—The Facts 2019: An Analysis of European Plastics Production, Demand and Waste Data," Page 14. Accessed March 29, 2021.

  13. The Coca-Cola Company. "Sustainable Packaging." Accessed March 29, 2021.

  14. Nestlé Waters North America. "Nestlé Waters North America Expands Use of 100% Recycled Plastic (rPET) in Three Additional Brands, Doubles rPET Use Across U.S. Domestic Portfolio." Accessed March 29, 2021.

  15. American Chemistry Council. "New Study Reports Over 60 Percent of U.S. Population Has Access to Recycling Programs for Many Plastics." Accessed March 29, 2021.