February 29, 2024

A national online recycling directory for plastic bags and films has been taken offline, six months after an investigation by ABC News found some materials were ending up in landfills, incinerators and other waste facilities.

The directory previously directed users to some 18,000 store drop-off locations around the country where they could bring used plastic bags and packaging to be recycled, including Walmart and Target locations. The initiative was promoted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local and state governments across the country.

In May, ABC News and affiliates used digital tracking devices to monitor plastic waste dropped off at Walmart and Target stores listed on the directory. Of the 46 trackers placed, the vast majority never ended up at locations associated with plastic bag recycling.

“Plastic film recycling had been an abysmal failure for decades and it’s important that plastic companies stop lying to the public,” said Judith Enck, president of advocacy group Beyond Plastics. “Finally, the truth is coming out.”

Plastics are a major contributor to the climate crisis. Made from oil and gas, the materials are set to drive nearly half of oil demand growth by midcentury, according to the US International Energy Agency.

Producing the materials requires fossil fuel extraction, refining and “cracking” in special high-heat facilities, and plastic waste often ends up in landfills and waste incinerators. Each step produces planet-heating and toxic emissions.

Already, the production and disposal of plastics account for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says, and that number is slated to rise.

Nina Bellucci Butler, CEO of Stina Inc, which managed the directory, cited a serious lack of commitment from industry partners in the decision to shutter the initiative, as well as meager demand for recycled plastics.

“It’s a fine line between maintaining a credible resource to help people find the best option for the common household items that are not easy to eliminate … and enabling greenwashing,” she wrote in an email.

She said a lack of adequate funding for the project and the plastic recycling sector at large also contributed to the decision to take down the site. The project was initially funded by the American Chemistry Council, a plastic industry lobbying group which has lobbied against many US environmental regulations, but Butler said it had been self-funded for almost a year before closing down last month.

The directory’s demise is indicative of a larger problem in the plastics recycling sector. Of the 51m tons of plastic waste US households generated in 2021, just 2.4m tons – or 5% – was recycled, a Greenpeace report found last year.

A major hurdle: plastic materials are expensive to collect and sort. There are thousands of different kinds of the material, and none of them can be melted down together. Even plastics of the same category often can’t be recycled together – bottles that are dyed green or blue, for instance, can’t be processed with clear bottles made of the same kind of plastic, and few facilities have the capacity to sort so many different materials, the Greenpeace report found.

Industry interests have long insisted that plastic recycling can be improved, yet report after report shows recycling is failing to rein in the problem.

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Plastic waste is also a major contributor to terrestrial and marine pollution, and can leach toxins into the environment.

Experts say plastic production must be curbed in an effort to curb toxic and planet-heating pollution. And Enck, who is also a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, said rather than relying on plastic recycling programs, “it’s better for people to shift to reusable bags”.

Butler said Stina also encourages the public to recycle plastic goods with the Trex Company, which still runs a recycling program with retailers. But ultimately, she said, she hopes the decision to end the program “results in more support for recyclers”.

“It’s past time to rethink business as usual,” she said.

Last month, world leaders met in Kenya to negotiate plans to tackle the plastic pollution crisis. And at the international climate talks known as Cop28 in the UAE this week, Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations environment program, urged nations and plastic producers to change their behavior.

“The world is ready to break its addiction to both fossil fuels and plastics,” she said.

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