New report finds that in five major US cities, 64% of plastic collected is not recyclable

 Cities can #BreakFreeFromPlastic by banning non-recyclable plastic and ending waste incineration.

July 28, 2021–Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) has released a report analyzing the challenges of recycling plastic in five major U.S. cities, closing out Plastic Free July.

Today, solid waste disposal costs cities and residents – with their health and their pocketbooks. The cities in this study have the potential to be at the forefront of reimagining the system and truly shifting their communities to a circular, zero waste economy.

The study looks at 5 cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Long Beach, Minneapolis, and Newark, cities that currently incinerate their waste or have recently relied on waste incineration, highlighting how burning waste undermines successful recycling programs. Environmental justice leaders in each city are pushing to shift their local systems away from burning waste to build systems towards zero waste.

Here are the key findings from the report

  • Lack of data transparency obstructs solutions. Good data leads to good policy. Data on municipal waste flows is absent, old and difficult to find. This allows the plastic industry to exploit loopholes and push self-serving narratives, and creates challenges for cities and communities that want to shift to true zero waste systems.
  • Most plastic is designed to be dumped or burned, harming communities. Cities can reduce pollution by banning non-recyclable plastic. Only 8.8% of all plastic in the waste stream in the five cities is actually recycled. The remainder is incinerated, landfilled or could supply plastic-for-fuel or chemical recycling facilities. 
  • Recycling rates are low because most plastic produced is not recyclable. Companies, not cities, should pay. 64.3% of all plastic in the waste stream in the five cities is not recyclable through municipal recycling or state redemption programs.
  • Cities should prioritize collecting only plastic that can be recycled. In the five cities, only 24% of potentially recyclable plastic (#1, #2, #5) gets recycled; 76% gets incinerated or landfilled. Conversely, 12%-55% of all plastic that ended up in single-stream recycling programs was not recyclable. 
  • While plastic recycling must be improved, it has its limits. Plastic reduction and zero waste systems must be prioritized.  Zero waste infrastructure like reuse, refill and repair provides up to 200x as many jobs as disposal, furthers environmental justice, and improves sustainability.

Below you’ll find quotes from local organizers in each city about the plastic crisis and harms of waste incineration. All speakers below are available for interviews:

Shashawnda Campbell, Environmental Justice Coordinator, South Baltimore Community Land Trust:

“In Baltimore the Bresco incinerator causes 55 million dollars a year in health damages. The environmental injustice of burning trash, including plastics, in communities of color and low income could never be undone because that would mean bringing back the lives that have been lost to air pollution and we all know that can’t be done. What could be done is transitioning to zero waste and away from incineration to make sure no more lives are lost.”

Sandra Turner-Handy, Community Outreach Director, MI Environmental Council: 

“We know that air pollutants released by Detroit’s incinerator in it’s 33 years of operation were found to cause asthma, premature death, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, decreased lung function, coughing and difficulty breathing.  In one neighborhood association of a 5 by 8 block area, just east of the closed facility; we lost over 22 neighbors to COVID in 2020.  Even though Detroit’s incinerator shut down in 2019, our communities living around the facility are still experiencing its negative health effects.”

Akira Yano, Organizer, Minnesota Environmental Justice Table:

“Hennepin County, which owns the HERC incinerator and defends it against decades of community opposition, must stop harming its most vulnerable residents. It must stop deploying the false choice of landfilling versus burning trash. This report shows that plastic is a crisis for our waste management system. The county needs to act by shutting down HERC as soon as possible, so that it does not burn more plastic into the air of its most vulnerable residents. Instead of pouring money into propping up the aging and failing HERC, Hennepin County should help address the plastic crisis by investing in a circular zero waste system and lobbying against increasing plastic production.”

Whitney Amaya, Incinerator Organizer, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice: 

“The plastic industry is harming our community, communities across the nation and the globe at every step. Locally, we have to bear the burden of breathing dirty air from the oil industry that’s fueling the transportation of plastic to the rest of the nation and from the incinerator that burns trash from several communities outside our own. This is a non-stop cycle because when it comes to plastic, most of it is made to be disposable, which means extraction is continuously happening and harming our communities & environment in the process every time.”

Maria Lopez-Nunez, Director of Environmental Justice and Community Development, Ironbound Community Corporation: 

“The Ironbound Community has faced decades of pollution from an unjust waste system that has allowed the Covanta incinerator to operate and for plastic to proliferate across the state. False solutions, such as incineration and chemical recycling, are preventing a just and equitable transition to Zero Waste for environmental justice communities across New Jersey and allowing the fossil fuel and plastic industry to continue to burn the planet. This report clearly shows that our government officials have failed the Ironbound Community time and again. Not only have they allowed the Covanta incinerator to continue to burn, they have turned a blind eye to the waste problem.” 

Read the report:

Press Contact: 

Markeya Thomas,


GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries. With our work we aim to catalyze a global shift towards environmental justice by strengthening grassroots social movements that advance solutions to waste and pollution. We envision a just, zero waste world built on respect for ecological limits and community rights, where people are free from the burden of toxic pollution, and resources are sustainably conserved, not burned or dumped.