Plastic Recycling: Two Decades of Progress

Two young children holding recycling bin

As published in “Plastics Engineering” magazine, a publication of the Society of Plastics Engineers.

What a difference a few years can make.

Following the selection of the new Pope in March, a pair of images from Rome made rounds on the Internet: a 2013 photo that captured thousands of people with smart phones and tablets recording the Papal pageantry, coupled with a similar photo from 2005 – with only a single person using a flip phone.

The juxtaposition of images is a vivid portrayal of rapid changes we’re experiencing. Recall, for example, that iPhones were introduced only 6 years ago!

While perhaps not as radical a change, recycling of everyday plastics has gone through a similar time warp, according to a slew of recent reports. We need to go back a bit further in time to get a perspective on the progress.

Growth of Plastics Recycling

Consumer recycling of plastic bottles began in earnest in the 1990s, followed soon by other consumer plastics. Plastics makers expended significant resources and lent technical expertise to communities across the country. The resin identification code, championed by recyclers, was codified into law in many states during that decade. All sorts of pilot programs – some small, some not, some successful, some not – were launched in an aggressive effort to jumpstart plastics recycling.

Flash forward to 2013. Those blue bins lining the streets on recycling day now are populated with many plastic items, some of which didn’t even exist in the 1990s. Efforts begun decades ago led to a far-reaching, growing recycling infrastructure for a wide variety of consumer plastics.

So let’s take a look at some of the latest recycling stats from EPA, the American Chemistry Council, the Association of Plastics Recycling and recycling experts, from which the numbers below are derived.

Plastic Bottle Recycling

Plastic bottles for soft drinks and other beverages were introduced to consumers in the 1970s and quickly became popular – they were lightweight and didn’t shatter when dropped. People could toss one in a purse or gym bag or back seat, and there was less worry about shattering and making a mess. At the same time, a variety of plastic bottles rapidly replaced other containers for many household items, such as laundry detergents and household cleaners, along with food and drink; today most of the bottles in our laundry rooms, refrigerators and pantries are made from plastics. It’s actually difficult to find many of these mainstream consumer products sold in glass anymore – glass shampoo bottles anyone?

However, the recycling infrastructure took a bit of time to catch up. But catch up it did … Just how widespread is the opportunity to recycle plastic bottles today? A study done in 2011 found that at least 94 percent of the U.S. population is able to recycle plastic bottles (and their bottle caps!) right in their own community. More than 2.6 billion pounds of plastic bottles were recycled in 2011 – a number that has increased every year since 1990 when a bottle survey began. (Variations in methodologies make it difficult to compare 1990 amounts and rates with today. Suffice it say, rates were very low.)

The EPA estimates that nearly 30 percent of bottles were recycled in 2010, so the opportunity remains to capture even more of these bottles for recycling. (As a comparison, 34 percent of glass bottles were recycled in 2010).

“Rigid” Plastics Recycling

Similar to bottles, plastics have become increasingly popular materials for all sorts of household items and consumer product containers over the last few decades – which generally has contributed to sustainability. The use of plastic containers, for example, has made it possible to provide more food (and ship more products) with less packaging and waste – so we save money and reduce our impact on the environment.

Recyclers call these items “non-bottle rigid” plastics, a category that includes not only containers but common household items such as laundry baskets, lawn chairs, gardening pots, and all sorts of durable home storage containers.  (Even though bottles are “rigid” plastics, bottle recycling generally is measured separately.)  These products and containers are made from a wide variety of resins: predominately HDPE and polypropylene, along with PET, polystyrene, LDPE, PVC, and others

The percentage of the U.S. population in 2012 that has access to recycling of all of these “rigid” plastics? Fifty-seven percent – which rose sharply from 40 percent only one year earlier.

If we slice these numbers another way, we find that more than 60 percent of U.S. consumers have access to recycle containers made from HDPE and PET – by reaching that threshold, these containers now are considered “recyclable” according to federal marketing guidelines. And access to recycling for containers made from other resins already is above 50 percent – and the trend is toward higher numbers.

In 2011 at least 934 million pounds of these “rigid” plastics were recycled, up 13 percent from only one year prior.

Plastic Wrap, Film and Bag Recycling (at Stores)

Plastic dry-cleaning wrap, bread bags, newspaper delivery sleeves, stretch wrap around cases of products in warehouse stores, grocery bags… Thin lightweight plastic film continues to find new protective uses, allowing us to package more food and other products with significantly less material than other options.

Plastic film recycling requires a different collection approach, though, in part because popular curbside recycling programs often (though not always) proved unsuitable to lightweight film.

Due to recent and rapid growth in drop-off programs, plastic film recycling is growing at a solid pace. Today there are more than 15,000 locations across the country where consumers can drop off polyethylene bags and wraps for recycling, typically in specially marked bins in front of large grocery and retail chains. (Flash back to the early 1990s – remember any plastic bag collection bins at stores…?) And consumers and businesses are rising to the challenge: in 2011 more than one billion pounds of plastic film were recycled.

That’s great progress, but there’s still much to do – according to EPA, plastic film was recycled at a nearly 12 percent rate in 2010. Recyclers, plastics makers and retailers are sharing tools and best practices to maximize plastic film recycling.

Recycled Plastics

So what happens to the plastics that are collected by consumers and businesses?  Many loop their way right back to us in new packaging and consumer products, such as stylish furniture, outdoor decking, cutting boards, food storage containers, new plastic bags – plus some rather unexpected places.

For example, Ford uses recycled plastics in the carpeting, seat fabrics, bumpers and other parts in some of its cars. Clothing designers are creating dresses, t-shirts and other apparel using soft, comfortable fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles. And Sony uses more than 17,000 tons of recycled plastics annually in televisions, video cameras, personal computers and other electronics.

Recycled plastics in cars, clothing and computers… Who would have imagined? Let’s see what the next two decades will bring.