The History of Plastics Recycling

Plastics recycling has a long and interesting history. It has expanded rapidly over the past few decades—today nearly all Americans have access to a plastics recycling program. And consumers now can find a wide range of products made with recycled plastics, from furniture to clothing to kitchen gadgets, which gives new life to these valuable materials by closing the recycling loop. Here are some milestones in the history of recycling plastics.

Plastics Recycling History

1972

The first recycling mill to accept residential plastics began operations in Conshohocken, Pa.

A mother and daughter recycling plastic bottles

1980s

Major U.S. cities began establishing curbside collection programs for plastics and other recyclables.

Green Home Icon: Manufactured symbol of a house to recycling.

 1984

Plastics recycling topped 100 million pounds in the U.S. for the first time in the history of plastics recycling.

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1986

Rhode Island became the first state in the history of recycling to mandate recycling, including some plastic bottles and containers.

Welcome to Rhode Island sign at the Connecticut state line west of Providence, Rhode Island along state route 101.

 1988

The triangular symbol to identify the plastic resin used to make packaging was adopted and quickly became widespread. Recyclers and consumers used the resin code to help them identify and sort plastics for recycling (although recyclers today generally use high-tech sorting equipment).

Man drawing a recycle symbol

1988—1992

Number of curbside recycling programs, many of which began collecting plastics, jumped from 1,000 in 1988 to nearly 5,000 by 1992.

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1990

Coca-Cola began blending recycled plastics into its beverage bottles, giving used plastics a new life.

Different bottles with soda isolated on white background

 1993

Patagonia began making clothing with plastics from recycled bottles that were cleaned, melted, stretched, and woven into soft, durable fabrics for fleece jackets and other outdoor gear—a process still in use today.

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Mid-1990s

Many major grocery and retail stores began in-store collection of plastic bags for recycling—many later added flexible plastic wraps (such as from paper towels, diapers, cases of water, dry-cleaning, etc.) to the list of plastics collected in-store.

Excited early 30's blond woman carrying bags after she has done her weekly shopping. She's trying to unlock her car while carrying those bags and talking over cell phone that is stuck between her ear and shoulder. She's really happy and excited. It's summer afternoon at shopping mall parking lot. Blurry cars in background. Tilt shot.

1997

America Recycles Day was founded by the National Recycling Coalition to encourage Americans to recycle more every day—today it’s sponsored by Keep America Beautiful.

Facing up businessman acting like a super hero and tearing his shirt off with luminous recycling symbol

 1997

The company Preserve began making toothbrushes out of recycled polypropylene and later launched its Gimme 5 collection program to produce reusable tableware, food storage containers, kitchenware and more made from recycled polypropylene.

Multicolor toothbrushes in white mug, with copyspace

2000s

Communities began introducing “all bottles” collection so residents could toss any plastic bottle into the curbside bin, greatly simplifying recycling and boosting collection.

Man holding daughter while recycling

 2001

Major recyclers began collecting recyclable plastics and other materials in a “single stream”— meaning residents toss plastics, glass, metals, and paper in a single large curbside bin, leading to recovery of up to three times more recyclable materials.

Woman pulling a large recycling bin

2010

Recyclers began asking consumers to place plastic caps (mostly polypropylene) back on bottles to be recycled.

colored plastic bottle caps, all mixed together

2011

Recycling of plastic bags and flexible product wraps topped one billion pounds in the U.S.—55 percent growth since 2005.

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2011—2013

Number of U.S. cities collecting all plastic bottles reached more than 2,000 in 2013—a significant increase from 1,570 cities in 2011.

Number of U.S. cities collecting non-bottle “rigid” containers reached more than 1,660 in 2013—a significant increase from 1,200 cities in 2011.

Placing a bottle into a recycling bin

 2013

The number of drop-off locations, such as major retail and grocery stores, for plastic bags and wraps reached more than 17,500. Americans’ access to plastic bottle recycling reached 94 percent.

Grocery cart at high speed

2016

Study finds that more Americans are able to recycle more plastics than ever before.

Grandparents Recycling With Grandson in Kitchen