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 10% of plastic generation from the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste stream is recycled. 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 up to 500 years to decompose plastic items in landfills.
  • According to the EPA, 9.1% of plastic material generated in the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) stream was recycled in 2015. Another 15.5% was combusted for energy, while 75.4% was sent to landfills.
  • Plastic recycling results in significant energy savings compared with the production of new plastics using virgin material.
  • PlasticsEurope reports that 7.7 million tons of plastics were recycled globally in 2014 That includes more than 3.5 million tons of post-industrial and post-consumer plastic scrap that were recycled in the United States, according to ISRI estimates. 
  • According to the EPA, about 30% of recyclable plastic bottles and jars were actually recycled in 2015.
  • The recycling rate of various plastic items such as plastic bags and bottles is slight. According to EPA reports, 2.1 million tons of plastic waste was recycled in 2008. This number equals to 6.8% of total plastic waste generated in the U.S. that year. But the recovery of PET soft drink bottles in 2008 was 37%, which was much better than that of other plastic containers. Only 13.3% of plastic packaging was recycled.
  • Every year, roughly 102.1 billion plastic bags are used by Americans.
  • 2.4 million tons of PET plastic are discarded in the U.S. each year. Between 26% and 41% of this is water bottles.
  • The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) reported that, in 2013, there were 5,764 million pounds of PET jars and bottles available for recycling, but only 31% of that was recycled. 369 million pounds of recycled PET were used for producing food and beverage containers during the same time.
  • Each year, about $25 million is spent in the state of California to dispose of plastic waste in landfills.

Ocean Plastic Facts

  • Almost 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world's oceans annually, according to a 2015 study from the Unversity of California Santa Barbara.
  • One out of every 10 items picked up in an International Coastal Cleanup in 2009 was a plastic bag. That makes plastic bags the second most common kind of waste item found in 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.
  • Researchers believe the amount of ocean plastic will be 10 times greater by 2020. And, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
  • Plos One, a scientific journal, estimates that 5 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 250,000 metric tons, are afloat in oceans.

Recycling Economic Facts

  • Between 2004 and 2014, the global production of plastics grew from 225 million tons to 311 million tons, an increase of 38%.
  • Only a very small percentage of recycled bottles are used to make new bottles. Coca-Cola sources only 7% of its plastic from recycled material, while Nestlé Waters North America uses just 6% recycled content.
  • Also in 2015, U.S. exporters shipped more than 2 million tons of plastic scrap, valued at $810 million.
  • According to the American Chemistry Council, more than 80% of Americans have access to different plastic recycling programs.
  • More than 1,600 business organizations in the U.S. are involved in recycling post-consumer plastic items.
  •  It costs approximately $4,000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags. But the selling price of these recycled bags is twice the cost.
  • Between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons of gasoline can be saved by recycling just one ton of plastics.
  • Producing plastic products from recycled plastics reduces energy consumption by 66%.
  • By recycling one ton of plastic wastes, you can save roughly 2,000 pounds of oil, the amount of water used by one person in two months' time, and two people’s energy consumption for one year.