An assessment of plastic waste disposal in the U.S. reveals that 44 million metric tons ended up in landfills during 2019. U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientists estimate the energy value of this lost resource as sufficient to supply 5% of the power used by the transportation sector, or 5.5% by the industrial sector.

About 5% of the waste plastic was recycled in 2019, while 86% was landfilled and the remainder burned to generate electricity. The market value of landfilled plastic ranges from $4.5 billion to $9.9 billion, or $7.2 billion on average, and the embodied energy in these materials is equivalent to about 12% of industrial sector energy consumption.

Some types of plastic are separated and recycled, chiefly the polyethylene terephthalate used to make soda bottles, and high-density polyethylene used for milk jugs and shampoo bottles. The most prevalent type present in landfills is the filmy plastic used for bags.

The three most populous states — California, Texas and Florida — also have the largest amount of landfilled plastic waste. The fourth most populous state — New York — ships much of its waste outside of the state.

The volumes of landfilled plastic waste are on the rise due to low recycling rates, population growth, consumer preference for single-use plastics and low disposal fees in certain parts of the country. These lost resources point to opportunities to implement new recycling techniques for plastics would create incentives for a circular economy. Advanced sorting technologies are needed that could eventually lead to increased use of recycled materials.

The research is published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

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