A dip in plastics recycling. Now what?

This year on America Recycles Day (November 15, #BeRecycled), there’s a lot of discussion about challenges facing the recycling industry. A recent example: the 2016 dip (2.4%) in plastic bottle recycling, which reversed twenty-five years of growth and a five-year compounded annual growth rate of 2.1%.

So, what happens when an enterprise that has seen two and a half decades of growth suddenly stalls, or even backslides? If it’s like other successful enterprises, it eventually adjusts to market forces. My guess is that will be the case with plastics recycling.

In fact innovations are already underway to improve efficiency and help restore long-term growth. Before we examine these innovations, let’s take a look at some of the industry’s current challenges, starting with the decline in bottle recycling.

So why the drop?  Contributors include a slight decrease in the weight of material collected, challenging export markets, and increased contamination.

In fact, weight reduction isn’t surprising. Bottle makers are source reducing, and designing ever thinner and lighter products than in years past. But export markets and contamination present challenges to increasing overall plastics recycling rates in the U.S.

Earlier this year, China—the major export market for recycled materials—announced its second major crackdown on the import of many types of materials, including plastics, which significantly exacerbates export markets.

And in the U.S., the rapid expansion of single stream recycling—the use of a single curbside container for all recyclables—has led to a significant rise in materials collected. It has also increased collection of non-recycled items, which contaminate the recycling stream.

Still, I’m optimistic.  Why?  As in any enterprise, challenges also create opportunities:

Domestic Investments—China’s recent crackdown has led to new investments in U.S. plastics recycling facilities, which could help soak up a lot of the supply of used plastics previously headed to China. Long-term, these investments could provide a more stable domestic market for recycled materials and also increase the number of U.S. jobs in plastics recycling.

Better Education—The unintentional mingling of non-recyclable materials (garden hoses, old video tapes, shoes and clothes) with recyclables is a stubborn problem, but it’s manageable. Communities, recyclers, NGOs, and others are addressing contamination by providing citizens with better information on what is and isn’t recyclable and developing a nationally accepted recycling label for consumer packaging.

Technology Innovation—Advanced technologies (e.g., optical sorters) are helping to strengthen yields, improve quality, and increase efficiency. Some of these technologies can sort more types of plastics, which can create additional value streams. Other new technologies are being developed to chemically recycle plastics, meaning used plastics are converted back into their original feedstock (e.g., polystyrene back to styrene), helping to increase circularity.

Demand—Corporate sustainability goals are helping to increase demand by calling for greater recycling and recycled content in products and packaging. A few examples:

  • The Association of Plastic Recyclers recently launched its Demand Champion Campaign, which seeks to increase the use of recycled polypropylene and polyethylene in items used in manufacturing (e.g., trash cans, pallets, and tote boxes). To date, APR’s Demand Champions include Campbell’s Soup Co., Coca-Cola North America, Keurig Green Mountain, Inc., Procter & Gamble, and Target Corp.
  • Amcor has introduced a flexible pouch that is recyclable with other plastic bags and wraps at more than 18,000 stores across the U.S. Plus, it contains 20% post-consumer recycled plastic, helping to increase demand for post-use plastics. Method uses these pouches for dishwasher detergent packs.
  • Procter & Gamble recently licensed technology to PureCycle that can remove virtually all contaminants and colors from used polypropylene. This should allow more companies to use more recycled polypropylene in more applications.

Changing market conditions are common in any enterprise, and progress isn’t always linear. I think a compelling case can be made that recent corporate goals and technological innovation will continue to drive recycling on a course for growth.

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