What Plastics Makers are Doing to Increase Packaging Recycling, Recovery
Plastics recycling in the US is at an all-time high, according to two reports released today at the 2016 Plastics Recycling Conference.
The 2014 National Postconsumer Non-Bottle Rigid Plastic Recycling Report found recycling of post-consumer rigid plastics surged 276 million pounds, or 27 percent, in 2014 to reach a record high of more than 1.28 billion pounds for the year. The report also indicated that the reported volume of recycled rigid plastics, which is tracked separately from bottles or film, is now four times greater than the volume reported in just 2007.
Meanwhile the 2014 National Postconsumer Plastic Bag and Film Recycling Report found a minimum of 1.17 billion pounds of postconsumer plastic film was recycled in 2014, an increase of over 29 million pounds, or 3 percent, from the prior year. This year’s study marks the 10th consecutive year of the report, and a 79 percent increase in plastic film recycling since 2005. Based on data from the EPA, the recycling rate for film has grown from 6.6 percent to 17 percent of production during the same period.
Moore Recycling Associates authored both reports, which were funded by the American Chemistry Council. The ACC attributes the increase in plastics recycling to the combination of more advanced sorting technologies coupled with expanded consumer access.
“We want our material to be recovered and given a new life,” says Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the ACC. “We recognize the demand for recycled material is very strong — there’s more demand for recycled materials than stuff going into curbside bins.”
What Is the Future of Plastics?
The ACC report follows a report by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation that calls on all stakeholders across the global plastics value chain — including consumer goods companies, plastic packaging producers and plastics manufacturers, recyclers and others — to apply circular economy principles to plastic packaging to reduce harmful environmental effects such as leakage into oceans.
The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics says that while plastics and plastic packaging are an integral part of the global economy and deliver many benefits, their value chains entail drawbacks. The report finds that most plastic packaging is used only once; 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80 billion to $120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.
“We recognize that when recyclable or energy-rich materials are disposed in landfills — or worse, littered — valuable materials are lost,” Christman says. “That’s why we’re working so hard to increase plastics recycling and energy conversion for non-recycled plastics and other materials. This shift will require wider adoption of technologies, greater access to infrastructure, and a cultural shift toward viewing used materials as still having value.”
To this end, the ACC and its 15 plastics division member companies participate in a number of efforts to increase the collection and recycling of plastics, such as the Wrap Action Recycling Program (WRAP), which has set a goal to double plastic film recycling — reaching about 2 billion pounds — by 2020. This partnership with states, municipalities, major brands including Dow, SC Johnson and Procter & Gamble, retailers and nonprofits such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition works to increase awareness of opportunities to recycle plastic wraps at more than 18,000 participating stores across the US.
How to Increase Plastics Recycling
Christman points to Keep America Beautiful’s “I Want to Be Recycled” campaign, of which ACC is a founding sponsor, as an example of a program promoting a cultural shift toward viewing used materials as still having value.
The Recycling Partnership, of which ACC is a financial supporter and a board member, addresses greater access to infrastructure and wider adoption of technologies, Christman says. One way it does this: the public-private partnership, whose members include P&G and Waste Management, has supplied more than 165,000 US households with new, larger recycling carts.
As a next step, the plastics industry is researching better ways to recover and recycle materials that present more of a challenge, such as plastic pouches used to package some cereals and pet food. “These packages offer tremendous benefits, from reducing GHGs, energy use, packaging waste and food waste, even though they are not recyclable today,” Christman says. “But let’s not stop there. How can we recover this material?”
The WEF and Ellen and Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, as well as the two Moore Recycling reports, show the plastics industry is making progress and they also show opportunities to improve. They “focus on increasing recovery, increasing recycling, increasing energy recovery and keeping plastics out of the environment and we strongly support those goals,” Christmas says. “And we’re not done yet.”
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