Plastics Recycling: Poised for Further Growth

Row of Plastic Recycling Bins

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

A year ago in this publication, an article from Plastics Make it Possible® on plastics recycling in 2014 began: “Plastics recycling is growing. Steadily, broadly, expansively.”

Historical Growth in Plastics Recycling

Indeed, plastics recycling has been growing for more than a quarter century since it began in earnest in the late 1980s. Year-over-year growth in plastics recycling has been the norm.

Statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show we recycled more plastics than ever in 2014, and the plastics recycling rate continued to rise. And since access to plastics recycling programs is growing along with the types of plastics accepted for recycling, it’s now easier than ever to recycle more plastics.

As part this trend, 2014 saw significant growth in three major categories of plastics recycling tracked by the American Chemistry Council: film, bottles, and rigids (defined below). While these three categories do not capture all plastics recycling, they’re indicative of the upward trend in plastics recycling.

Headwinds

At the same time, news stories have been chronicling recent struggles in the markets for many materials collected for recycling. Recycling is a business and recycled materials are commodities, so the recycling industry can cycle up and down, for many reasons.

A key struggle for today’s recyclers is caused in part by the move toward single-bin recycling: more and more communities ask residents to toss all recyclables together into one bin, rather than separating plastics from metals from paper and others. While this move certainly increases the amount of materials collected for recycling, it also can increase the amount of non-recyclable “contaminants” that have to be sorted and removed. For example, some people mistakenly put garden hoses, videocassette tapes, bowling balls, and old shoes in recycling bins. These and other contaminants are costly to remove from the recycling stream, and if they remain among the recyclable materials that are sold in the market, they can drag down the value of otherwise prized materials.

Other economic forces also have impacted recycling markets, such as fluctuating values for commodities and the loss of some foreign markets, especially for “off spec” materials that contain contaminants.

Plastic Recycling Trends in 2015

So as the recycling markets have expanded over the years, these growing pains have caused some headwinds that are affecting many materials. Including plastics… as demonstrated in the recent reports measuring recycling for plastic film, bottles, and rigids in 2015.

Rather than growing “steadily, broadly, expansively” like in 2014, in 2015 plastics recycling grew unevenly but inexorably.

Let’s take a look…

Plastic “film” recycling grew three percent

The plastic “film” category includes low-density polyethylene and high-density polyethylene plastics used in bags and product wraps. Instead of being collected at curbside, plastic bags (e.g., for groceries, food/produce, newspaper delivery, dry cleaning) and plastic wraps for products (e.g., beverage cases, diapers, napkins) are collected for recycling at more than 18,000 grocery and retail stores across the U.S.

Even though this at-store collection program is relatively new, recycling of plastic film grew 34 million pounds, or three percent, in 2015 to reach nearly 1.2 billion pounds for the year.

This marks the eleventh consecutive year of increases and the highest annual collection of plastic film. Film recycling has increased nearly 84 percent since the first time it was measured in 2005 and continues to be one of the fastest growing areas of recycling.

Recycled plastic film is used to make a range of products, including durable composite lumber for outdoor decks and fencing, home building products, lawn and garden products, crates, pipe, and film for new plastic packaging.

Plastic bottle recycling held nearly steady

 A plastic bottle is defined as a container whose neck is smaller than its body. Since 2010 plastic bottle recycling has grown by nearly 400 million pounds, increasing on average by nearly 80 million pounds per year, or 2.9 percent annually.

In 2015, plastic bottle recycling held nearly steady, with a slight decrease of 0.5 percent from 2014. The overall recycling rate for plastic bottles for the year was 31.1 percent, down slightly from 31.7 percent the previous year.

This plateau was due in part to the success of bottle makers: plastic bottles are becoming lighter and lighter as manufacturers produce thinner bottles using less material. Less material by weight in the marketplace can lead to less material by weight collected for recycling.

Recycled plastics from bottles are used widely in plastic products and parts, from clothing fabrics to auto components to new bottles.

 “Rigids” recycling dipped nearly four percent

 The rigid plastics category includes food containers, caps, lids, tubs, and cups; bulky items such as buckets, carts, and lawn furniture; and used commercial scrap such as crates, battery casings, and drums.

“Rigids” recycling has grown 280 percent since tracking began in 2007. Rigids recycling generally held strong in 2015 but dipped by 45 million pounds, or not quite four percent, to 1.24 billion pounds. Higher-quality bales (clean, single material) fared better than mixed materials, as they are less costly to reclaim.

In the U.S., these plastics are recycled primarily into automotive parts, crates, buckets, pipe, and lawn and garden products.

The Future of Recycling?

As noted above, these three plastics recycling categories do not capture all plastics recycling. Numerous other types of plastics are collected for recycling—for example, expanded polystyrene packaging, polyurethane foam from mattresses, vinyl siding—in varying degrees.

Since EPA has calculated overall plastics recycling only through 2014, it’s too early to tell whether plastics recycling grew in 2015. But given the historical resiliency in plastics recycling, it’s likely that overall recycling increased and will continue to increase.

One strong indicator: demand from major retail and brand companies. Many large national and multi-national companies are building increased use of recycled plastics into their sustainability goals. For example, as part of its broad efforts to help increase recycling, a major U.S. retailer has vowed to replace all conventional polyester with recycled polyester in it corporate owned-brand apparel, accessories, and home products.

The success of plastics recycling depends on a wide variety of players and forces, including the entire plastics supply chain, supply and demand, public policy, consumer awareness, and more. In other words, it relies on everybody.

So can we say with confidence that plastics recycling will continue to rise? That’s up to all of us.