Steve Alexander is executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, Steve Russell is vice president of the American Chemistry Council's Plastics Division and Steve Sikra is section head for corporate R&D at The Procter & Gamble Company. The authors contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
As a nation, the United States is making strong and steady progress in recycling our most common plastics — Americans have recycled more plastics each year than the prior year for the last two and a half decades.
Take plastic bottles: In 2014, U.S. consumers recycled a record high of more than 3 billion pounds of plastic bottles — generating an estimated $730 million in revenue from selling bales of plastic material — and the recycling rate climbed to an all-time high of 32 percent . And unlike the early days, consumers today are advised to twist caps on before tossing their empty bottles in the bin, because recyclers want the caps too.
That's all good news, but some of the most dramatic gains are happening in flexible polyethylene packaging and with other plastic containers. Between 2005 and 2013, the recycling of flexible plastic film (bags and wraps) jumped nearly 75 percent to reach more than 1 billion pounds, and the recycling rate grew to 17 percent. To achieve these increases, groups like ours came together to come up with innovative solutions.
Today, more than 18,000 stores across the country collect used plastic wraps and bags to be recycled near each store's main entrance, but not everyone is aware of this opportunity to recycle. Working in concert with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, industry has introduced a "store drop-off" label that appears right on a package to let consumers know it can be recycled at participating stores.
Recycled bags and wraps are used to make durable composite decks, home building products, and new packaging.
Another way industry is working to promote recycling of flexible packaging is by partnering with states and communities to educate residents. Through the Wrap Recycling Action Program — or WRAP — retailers, businesses and communities are cooperating to boost the recycling of everyday wraps from paper towels, beverage cases, bread, produce and even dry cleaning bags — all at local stores.
Another rapidly growing area is the category of "rigid plastics," which includes things like yogurt cups, deli containers, commercial-size tubs, and caps and lids. In the United States, the recycling of rigid plastics tripled between 2007 and 2013, topping one billion pounds.
Achieving a steady and growing stream of recycled plastics helps feed demand by brand owners, retailers and manufacturers, which helps to reduce more waste and benefit the environment in multiple ways. For example, recycling plastics also helps to conserve energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions. A 2010 study found that recycling two common types of plastics can save enough energy each year to power 750,000 homes. And recycling high-density polyethylene (used for milk jugs) can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 66 percent compared to producing new material. [Urbanization Can Actually Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Op-Ed)]
Increasing plastics recycling helps brand owners and other industry leaders to set stretch goals that a few years ago would have seemed unreachable. For example, Procter & Gamble has committed to doubling the use of recycled plastics in its packaging by 2020. Many other brand owners are working more closely with recyclers to design certain packaging and containers to make them more compatible with recycling infrastructure and technology. Designing packaging with its next use in mind is a long-term industry goal.
P&G also is a partner in a new fund established to jumpstart recycling. The $100 million Closed Loop fund, founded by ten of the largest consumer goods companies, provides zero- and low-interest loans to cities and companies that want to build new recycling facilities and projects. By 2025, the fund aims to eliminate more than 50 million tons of greenhouse gases, divert more than 20 million tons of waste from landfills, and create more than 20,000 jobs. [California’s Recycling Target Could Create 110,000 New Jobs (Op-Ed)]
The first project: a high-tech recycling plant in Baltimore that will sort 54,000 tons of plastic materials for recycling each year, including many that often are not recycled today. One of the largest facilities of its kind, it will collect plastics within a 500-mile radius across the East Coast.
And another joint effort — The Recycling Partnership — dramatically improved recycling in more than 70 U.S. communities this year alone. Currently reaching 1.2 million U.S. households, this organization has supplied more than 165,000 of them with new, larger recycling carts.
Overcoming the obstacles
To be sure, plastics recycling still faces some hurdles, many of which hinge on outdated or incomplete information. Case in point: a lot of people don't realize that polyethylene wraps and bags are widely recycled, yet more than 90 percent of Americans have access to a store drop-off program that recycles these materials. As another example, some have alleged that recycled plastics aren't valuable, but market demand for many recycled plastics (e.g., rigid HDPE, clean PE film, PP and PET) is often significantly stronger than it is for recycled fiber (i.e., paper) based on prices per pound of material.
And while it's true that there are many different types of plastics, which can complicate sorting and processing, these issues are being addressed by increased access to "single stream" collection programs, whereby residents can put all of their recyclables into a single large bin, making it easier for them to do their part. And on the processing end, advanced optical sorting technologies now being deployed at many materials recovery facilities are improving how recyclers sort and package used plastics for sale.
What about claims that collected material is just sent overseas? While some plastics are, indeed, processed oversees, in 2014 exports fell to their lowest level in six years, and U.S. reclamation capacity for many plastics continued to increase. What's more, the U.S. also imports used plastic from other countries for recycling. The degree of exports and imports in any given year, of course, depends on variable market conditions.
And plastics recycling advocates are working to overcome other issues. For example, our industry has created a series of no-cost tools to help communities help their residents learn which plastics go in the recycling bin. We've placed recycling bins at more away-from-home venues, such as stadiums, parks, and beaches. And since not all plastics can be economically recycled, new technologies are emerging that can recover the energy from those non-recycled plastics instead of burying them.
Every day strong, lightweight plastics help us to do more with less. After these efficient products and packages are used and reused to the extent possible, plastics are increasingly valued as recycled materials.Plastic makers, recyclers, brand owners and others are working hard to increase plastics recycling, and we're confident that our success will continue. As long as we keep working together.
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