United States plastics: Large flows, short lifetimes, and negligible recycling

Barbara Reck, Thomas E. Graedel and 2 other contributors

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    Given increasing concerns for the marine environment and human health, as well as trade restrictions from Asian countries, plastics have become a great challenge for the United States. This study addresses the seven commonly used plastics: low-density polyethylene/linear low-density polyethylene, high-density polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, and other plastics. Material flows of the seven polymers were tracked from production into fabrication, manufacturing, flow into use, waste management, and recycling in the United States in 2015. Low- and high-density polyethylene and polypropylene were found to be the largest in both production and product manufacture. More than 88% of the plastics went into three end-use sectors: Packaging, Consumer and Institutional Products, and Building and Construction. In-use lifetimes across the plastics are generally short. Virgin plastics were mainly exported, while intermediate plastic products were largely imported. The actual end-of-life recycling rate of the plastics as a group was no more than 6.2%, with PET and the polyethylene family the most recycled. The high yearly plastic throughput and low recycling rate pose a serious challenge to the sustainability goals of the United States and is in stark contrast to the vision of a circular economy of plastics.