Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.
NOTE: figures in this article on rigid plastics and plastic film recycling have been updated since publication in Plastics Engineering magazine.
Plastics recycling is growing. Steadily, broadly, expansively.
It’s useful every once in a while to remind ourselves why we recycle anything at all. Imagine for a moment the long and winding path of something as commonplace as a plastic milk jug: from natural resources to petro/chemical facilities to plastics production to blow molding to filling, shipping, merchandizing, purchasing, and (finally) enjoying. Does it make sense to simply discard all that? Materials often have value even after we use them, so burying them in a landfill is an egregious waste of resources.
Furthermore, recycling can reduce energy use and cut greenhouse gas emissions. According to EPA, recycling combined with composting (EPA often lumps these together) saved “the same amount of energy consumed by almost 10 million U.S. households in a year” and reduced greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent of removing more than 33 million passenger vehicles from the road in a year. Plus recycling industries can create significantly more jobs than simply hauling and burying garbage, says EPA.
Looking specifically at plastics, a 2010 study found that recycling HDPE and PET plastics can save enough energy each year to power 750,000 homes. And recycling HDPE can reduce greenhouse gas emissions 66 percent compared to using virgin HDPE.
So … combine energy savings, reduced waste and greenhouse gases, and more jobs, and recycling sounds pretty smart. Thankfully, recycling in the U.S. continues to grow—according to the EPA, the U.S. recycling rate has more than doubled since 1990.
The rate for plastics recycling has grown even more than that, in part because recycling these newer materials began in earnest only in the 1990s. Companies that make plastics invested billions of dollars over the past few decades to help set up the recycling infrastructure (the topic of a future Plastics Make it Possible® article). So today the plastic bottle recycling rate is approaching the rate for glass.
While there still is a long way to go catch aluminum and steel recycling rates, here’s a quick look at the success of recycling for some common plastics based on the latest tracking data … and advances that may well increase the momentum.
The U.S. recycling rate for plastic bottles reached nearly 32 percent in 2014. Plastic bottle recycling grew by 97 million pounds to top 3 billion pounds for the year. That marks the 25th consecutive year that Americans have increased the pounds of plastic bottles collected for recycling (surveying began in 1990).
The collection of polypropylene bottles, specifically, jumped more than 28 percent to reach a recycling rate of nearly 45 percent, higher than the collective recycling rate for glass beer and soft drink bottles.
The recycled resins made from plastic bottles are used widely in plastic products and parts, from clothing fabrics to auto components to new bottles.
Non-bottles or “rigids”
Rigid plastics represent a category of non-bottle plastic containers along with caps and lids. Nearly 1.3 billion pounds of rigids were collected for recycling in the U.S. in 2014. That’s quadruple the amount collected in just 2007 (when measuring began).
In the U.S., these plastics are recycled primarily into automotive parts, crates, buckets, pipe, and lawn and garden products.
Instead of being collected at curbside like bottles and rigids, plastic bags (e.g., for groceries, food/produce, newspaper delivery, dry cleaning), and plastic overwraps 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 this postconsumer plastic “film” packaging reached nearly 1.2 billion pounds in 2014. Plastic film recycling has increased 79 percent since 2005 (when measuring began) and has reached a rate of 17 percent.
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.
Access to curbside and drop-off recycling programs for foam polystyrene packaging is growing across the U.S. The EPS Industry Alliance reported an all-time high recycling rate of 34 percent for foam polystyrene protective packaging for 2103.
To help increase recycling, a new interactive website allows Americans and Canadians to search for local foam packaging recycling programs. PSFoamRecycling.org differentiates between programs that accept protective foam packaging (typically used for transporting electronics and other high-end products), programs that collect foam food packaging (such as coffee cups, clamshell containers, egg cartons, and meat trays), and programs that collect both types of packaging. The site also notes whether the foam packaging is collected at curbside or drop-off programs and identifies foam packaging “mail back” programs for areas where local recycling does not exist.
Recycled polystyrene is used to make numerous products, from picture frames to crown molding to egg cartons.
New Recycling Fund and Plastics Recycling Facility
To help increase the momentum of recycling, 10 of the largest consumer products companies (e.g., P&G, Walmart, Coca-Cola) have created the $100 million Closed Loop Fund. The Fund provides zero and low interest loans to cities and companies that want to build new recycling facilities and projects for plastics and other materials. By 2025, the fund aims to eliminate more than 50 million tons of greenhouse gas, divert more than 20 million tons of waste from landfills, and create more than 20,000 jobs.
Its first project opened in late 2015, a high-tech recycling facility in Baltimore that is able to sort 54,000 tons of plastics for recycling each year, including some that today are not recycled often. One of the largest facilities of its kind, The QRS Plastics Recovery Facility is expected to collect plastics within a 500-mile radius across the East Coast and process approximately 4,500 tons of materials each month, more than double what is currently possible in the U.S., according to its backers.
The facility uses technologies that can make it more economical to sell these plastics in the market, which could considerably increase the amount of plastics recycled. Advanced, high-tech optical sorters “read” different types of plastics and then send puffs of air to blow specific items into the correct stream. These streams of plastics that have been separated according to type can be much more valuable than streams of mixed plastics. The facility also plans to process the plastics back into the raw material (plastic pellets) for sale.
The combination of funding source, advanced technologies, and pellet processing are designed to make broader plastics recycling more cost-effective. According to the Closed Loop Fund, facilities like this could be replicated across the nation—and beyond.
The momentum in plastics recycling is encouraging and helping all of us reduce our environmental footprint. Let’s keep it up.
For more information on plastics recycling, visit plasticsmakeitpossible.com