Discussions of the growing plastic waste problem often focus on reducing the volume of single-use plastic packaging items such as bags, bottles, tubs, and films. But more waste comes from electronics, furniture and home furnishings, building construction, automobiles, and various consumer products, the researchers report.

“Managing plastics has become a grand and complex environmental challenge, and plastic packaging clearly warrants current efforts on reductions and coordinated material recovery and recycling,” says Gregory Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and senior author of the paper in Environmental Research Letters.

“However, while packaging was the largest defined-use market for US plastics in 2017, our study shows that two-thirds of the plastic put into use that year went into other markets,” says Keoleian.

“Those other sectors introduce unique challenges, as well as opportunities, as we attempt a fundamental shift away from the largely linear flow of plastics and toward a circular economy for plastics.”

The authors of the new study say it’s the first comprehensive characterization of plastics use across the entire US economy. It concludes that the overall recycling rate for plastics in the US is slightly lower than previous estimates: Just 8% of the plastics that reached the end of their useful life in 2017 were recycled.

Previous estimates, including one from the Environmental Protection Agency, focused on solid plastic waste in municipal landfills, composed largely of containers and packaging. The new study also includes plastic from construction and demolition waste and from automobile shredder residue.

The new study, known as a material flow characterization, details a single year of plastics production, use and disposal in the US and uses the best available data from industry and public sources. Researchers wanted to generate a road map to help guide industry, policymakers, and academics along the path toward accelerated plastic waste reduction.

Read the full article about the diversity of plastic pollution by Jim Erickson at Futurity.