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We Need to Clean Up Our Recycling Crisis

Nearly 70% of trash found on beaches during the International Costal Cleanup is unrecyclable

Emily Brauner (1)
© Emily Brauner

This weekend we will join volunteers around the world who are cleaning up their neighborhoods, beaches and local waterways. Doing a cleanup is always an eye-opening activity where you are up close and personal, seeing the amount and impact of trash in the places we call home. You see items you recognize from your everyday life like straws or plastic cutlery littering the natural spaces you care about. It can change the way you use plastic in your homes and lead to a deeper commitment to the ocean.

Similarly, the data volunteers collect during the International Costal Cleanup™ (ICC) can help us see the magnitude of the problem of ocean plastic. We can identify trends and influence policy that helps stop plastic pollution at the source. Today we released the 2021 ICC Report which revealed that 69% of the most commonly collected items over the last 35 years of the ICC are effectively unrecyclable.

Of these unrecyclable items, roughly half were food related. This includes takeout containers, cup lids, plastic cutlery and more. Takeout has increased during the pandemic, and many people don’t know how to dispose of those containers. Our report found 71% of Americans ordered takeout or delivery between one to three times a week, but less than half could correctly identify which types of food ware items could be recycled.

Much of our takeout food comes in containers that are not recyclable. For instance, 46% of Americans reported receiving their takeout in expanded polystyrene (foam) clamshell containers and 39% got them with clear plastic lids and black plastic bottoms. Neither of these items is recyclable in the majority of communities across the country, but many Americans believe they are, understandably so—they’re all forms of plastics and all have the classic “chasing arrows” symbol on them.

However, containers with clear plastic lids and black plastic bottoms are problematic. Waste sorting systems cannot recognize the color of black plastic, rendering them generally unrecyclable. Yet 63% of Americans believed that the black plastics could be recycled. Polystyrene (foam) clamshell containers, long a source of environmental concern because of difficulties in breaking them down, were believed by 33% of Americans to be recyclable.

These issues are not the fault of the people who receive these containers. Most of us rely on the “chasing arrows” label on our packaging to help us make those decisions. However, many of the products that feature this symbol aren’t recyclable in our local communities, making it confusing for people to sort out what goes into the recycle bin. And this confusion can cause a big problem for our ocean. It means we’re producing a lot of waste that isn’t being properly discarded.

One solution is clear: To stop the flow of plastics entering our waters, we need to reduce the amount of single-use plastic being produced. But, we also need to make sure the plastic waste we do produce isn’t destined for landfills or our ocean.

Luckily, there are solutions and many people—like you and all of us at Ocean Conservancy—who want change. One in three Americans surveyed would be willing to subscribe to a local low-cost reusable takeout-container return program. There is large support for bans of single-use items, and 60% Americans would support local ordinances that improve recyclability standards for takeout containers. Together, we can work to ensure that when we order delicious takeout food it comes without plastic that can pollute our ocean.

You can take action now to drastically improve recycling systems in the U.S., as only dramatic improvements will move us towards the more circular economy that our ocean needs. First and foremost, we need aggressive recycled content standards in place to incentivize more and improved recycling. By requiring manufacturers to include more recycled materials in their products, we can drive demand for materials that actually can be recycled. You can help make this possible by showing your support for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. This important legislation includes a mandate for plastic producers to use more recycled materials in their products. Together, we can urge governments and corporations to step up to truly stem the tide of plastics into our ocean.

You can also join us on September 18 for the kickoff of the 2021 ICC. We are inviting ocean lovers to #ConnectAndCollect with us. It is an opportunity to show your “dev-ocean” and reconnect with your loved ones. Find out how you can do small-group cleanups using the Clean Swell® app or at community cleanup events found on our website. 

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