A Professor Plastics Feature ArticleSee Other Articles
In celebration of America Recycles Day on November 15, Professor Plastic will play Professor of History and highlight some of her favorite milestones in this plastics recycling timeline.
Plastics are relatively new. Plastics recycling is even newer.
Fortunately, plastic recycling is growing quickly and steadily. For example, today nearly 31 percent of plastic bottles are recycled, compared to 34 percent for glass containers that have been recycled in America much longer.
Of course we can do better. Improved collection methods coupled with new consumer packaging labeling should help significantly increase recycling rates.
Plastics Make it Possible® has created a recycling timeline of milestones in plastics recycling. Here are a few of my favorites:
Major U.S. cities began establishing curbside collection programs for plastics and other recyclables.
This milestone is not so much about plastics recycling as it is about recycling overall. While there’s some disagreement over the date and location of the first curbside recycling program, Berkeley, California launched what was certainly one of the first in 1973—only 40 years ago. And it was only in the 1980s—a short three decades ago—that some large American cities began collecting recyclables in bins at curbside, making recycling much easier for all of us.
So handy curbside recycling is quite new in our recycling timeline. Prior to curbside recycling, most green-minded individuals had to haul and drop off materials at (few and far between) recycling depots. Which brings me to my next/related favorite item on the plastics recycling timeline …
Number of curbside recycling programs, many of which began collecting plastics, jumped from 1,000 in 1988 to nearly 5,000 by 1992.
See how long it took for curbside recycling to really catch on? Nearly 20 years from Berkeley’s 1973 launch to reach 5,000 U.S. cities in 1992.
So what caused the rapid expansion in four short years? In addition to some public policy changes, during this time America experienced a “garbage crisis” that was precipitated in large part in 1987 by a barge full of garbage from Islip, New York (named Mobro 4000; nicknamed “Gar-barge”). It was denied a home in North Carolina (where it was to be turned into methane) and then wandered all the way to Belize searching for a new home for its stinky cargo. It finally returned to New York, where the garbage was incinerated and the ash buried back in Islip. The wayward barge received massive media attention and led to fears of dwindling landfill space and calls for greater recycling.
Turns out there really wasn’t a garbage “crisis”—but the incident and resulting attention helped spur tremendous growth in curbside recycling programs, many of which were accepting some plastics.
Coca-Cola began blending recycled plastics into its beverage bottles.
When a company the size and stature of Coca-Cola championed recycled plastics, it helped solidify the burgeoning recycling efforts—and drew attention to the importance of recycling more plastics. Three years later 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. And plastics recycling topped 1 billion pounds in the U.S. for the first time on our plastics recycling timeline.
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.
While curbside recycling is just dandy for plastic containers, flexible plastic “film” (bags and wraps) doesn’t always lend itself to easy sorting at recycling centers when mixed with containers.
In the mid-1990s a coalition of plastics makers, retailers, recyclers, and consumer product companies began developing a plastic film collection program at large retail stores. Today thousands of major retailers across the country, including grocery stores, Target, Walmart, Lowe’s and others, collect used plastic film for recycling.
One company alone (Trex) used more than 3 billion recycled grocery bags in its products in 2010—and recycling of plastic film topped 1 billion pounds in the U.S. in 2011.
Americans’ access to plastic bottle recycling reached 94 percent.
That’s a pretty big number—and emblematic of how far plastics recycling has come in the few short decades of our plastics recycling timeline.
The Plastics Recycling Timeline highlights many more milestones—check it out for yourself.