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A Voice for our Ocean

35 Years of International Coastal Cleanup Data Demonstrate a Recyclability Crisis

Ahead of 2021 International Coastal Cleanup, Ocean Conservancy report reveals nearly 70% of trash found on beaches is unrecyclable; widespread confusion about food ware recyclability.

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: Today Ocean Conservancy released a report revealing that 69% of the most commonly collected items over the last 35 years of the organization’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) are effectively unrecyclable. Of these, nearly half are food and beverage related items. The report also found widespread confusion about the recyclability of food ware: on average, six in 10 Americans made incorrect assumptions about the recyclability of common plastic food delivery containers. These results come just days ahead of the 2021 ICC, the world’s largest volunteer effort for our ocean, to be held on September 18.

Since the first ICC in 1986, nearly 17 million volunteers have collected over 357 million items, all the while recording their findings and contributing to the world’s largest marine debris database. Analysis of the 17 most commonly collected items – including cigarette butts, plastic wrappers, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, straws and stirrers – found that the bulk of the trash collected by volunteers are not recyclable in most circumstances.

For this analysis, Ocean Conservancy broadly defined recyclability as items that are accepted and processed by curbside recyclers in the United States. Items such as plastic food wrappers and bags, which technically can be handled by specialty processers but rarely are in practice, were considered not recyclable. Of the 31% of trash collected by ICC volunteers that was recyclable, 7% of this was aluminum or metal, 5% was glass, and roughly half was plastic.

“The incredible data collected by ICC volunteers since 1986 underscores the dual challenges of tackling the ocean plastic problem: inadequate waste management that leads to trash in our environment, and reliance on single-use plastic items that can’t actually be recycled,” said Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® program. “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.”

Food related waste, including straws, cutlery, and takeout containers, make up more than 60% of the most commonly collected items at the ICC. In the summer of 2021, Ocean Conservancy conducted a survey to find out more about Americans’ food delivery and takeout consumption and their perceptions of what can and cannot be recycled. The results reveal a public that regularly orders takeout and delivery but does not know how to dispose of the materials that it comes in: 71% of Americans reported ordering takeout or delivery between one to three times a week, but less than half could correctly identify which types of containers could be recycled.

When asked about the recyclability of specific materials, results varied. Most Americans are unaware that plastic coated paper containers are not recyclable: 57% of Americans believed that these items could be recycled, while another 20% believed that they could be composted. Containers with clear plastic lids and black plastic bottoms were another major source of confusion. Waste sorting systems cannot recognize the color of black plastic, rendering them generally unrecyclable, but 63% of Americans believed that it could be. Expanded polystyrene (foam) clamshell containers, long a source of environmental concern because of the ease with which it breaks into pieces, were believed by 33% of Americans to be recyclable.

Additional survey findings included:

  • 46% of Americans reported receiving their takeout in expanded polystyrene (foam) clamshell containers, followed by containers with clear plastic lids and black plastic bottoms (39%), and paper containers (37%).
  • Pizza boxes were the single most common type of takeout packaging reported, with 61% of Americans receiving at least one in the last month.
  • Reuse is low: only 22% of Americans wash and reuse takeout containers at least once.
  • 60% Americans would support local ordinances improving recyclability standards for takeout containers.
  • One in three Americans would be willing to subscribe to a local low-cost reusable take out container return program.

Coupled with bans on single-use plastic items and increased responsibility placed on plastic manufacturers, recycled content standards can play a major role in helping to improve our recycling system. Ocean Conservancy’s Plastic Policy Playbook showed that increasing demand for recycled plastic through recycled content standards has the potential to reduce the existing collection financing gap by up to 34%.

“By requiring manufacturers to include more recycled materials in their products, we can drive demand for materials to actually be recycled,” said Mallos. “We need governments to step up and pass legislation, like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act which mandate plastic producers to use more recycled materials in their products.”

The findings were released to coincide with the 36th annual ICC, which begins officially on September 18 and continues throughout the final months of the year. Ocean Conservancy is inviting ocean lovers to #ConnectAndCollect at this year’s ICC through small-group cleanups using the Clean Swell® app, or at community cleanup events where safe.  To learn more about local cleanup events and how to conduct a COVID-19 safe cleanup, visit

“The last 35 years of the ICC have showed us that everyone has a role to play in stopping plastic pollution,” said Allison Schutes, director of the ICC. “Individuals can make an outsized impact by joining the ICC and collecting data, reducing their reliance on single-use plastic items, and reading up on local recycling rules; but ultimately, we need governments and corporations to step up to truly stem the tide.”


Note to editors:

Ocean Conservancy experts are available for comment and interview upon request. The full report can be found on Ocean Conservancy’s website here. Photos and b-roll are available here.  A fact sheet on food packaging, ocean plastics, and other related topics is available here.

About Ocean Conservancy

Ocean Conservancy is working to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges. Together with our partners, we create science-based solutions for a healthy ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on it. For more information, visit, or follow us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.

About Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® Program

Ocean Conservancy has led the fight for a clean, healthy ocean free of trash since 1986, when the U.S.-based nonprofit launched its annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Since then, Ocean Conservancy has mobilized millions of ICC volunteers to remove trash from beaches and waterways around the world while pioneering upstream solutions to the growing ocean plastics crisis. Ocean Conservancy invests in cutting-edge scientific research, implements on-the-ground projects, and works with conservationists, scientists, governments, the private sector and members of the public to change the plastics paradigm. To learn more about our Trash Free Seas® program visit

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Trash Free Seas

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