Report on Plastic Bottle Recycling 2017

Plastic recycling is a partnership. While plastic resin makers rush to make more environmentally friendly products, all used plastic products still must be returned to the recycling stream.

The wide variety of plastics will require a proper recycling/waste channel for many years to come, so environmentally sensitive consumers need to help government and private companies get the material in the right place to properly reuse or dispose the plastic.

Californian’s have a great record for recycling plastic bottles. PET (used on water bottles) plastic is recycled at an impressive 75%. But only pure PET can be used in new resin for new bottles. Plastic from other types of plastic must not be mixed with PET, or it can spoil the whole batch.

Even the new bioplastic promise comes with a caveat. Yes, it will biodegrade, but only in special compostable conditions, which does not exist in most of today’s landfills. Composting needs oxygen and the right “bugs” to decompose these new plastics. Hundreds of new facilities will need to be built.

Many plastics cannot be easily recycled or can emit toxic chemicals when burned or treated in certain ways. So disposal in safe landfills is necessary.

In each case, in order to get the most out of our valuable resources, plastics need to be channeled to the right waste stream.

Consumers can help by understanding how to separate plastics from other trash when we place them in waste bins. This can be somewhat challenging, because each municipality has different standards and each region has different recycling/waste facilities.

The best way to do this is to read the local waste company’s guidelines and do your best to adhere to those guidelines. When this is done, government and business can increase the efficiency of the process.

Recent studies from the American Chemistry Council (2016), indicate that the consumer, government, business partnership slipped a little for three of the most common bottle types by 1.4% compared to 2015. The total national rate of recycling for PET, HDPE, and PP bottle resins was 29.7%. The trend has been down since the great recession started in 2008.[i]  This represented 71 million pounds of these three resin types.

The per capita consumption of bottle resins increased slightly to just over 30 pounds but is not back to levels in 2017 at over 31 pounds.  The use of plastic bottles has increased, but the lightweighting efforts have offset the increased use. LIghtweighting is the use of thinner walled bottles for drinks, reducing the material used.[ii]

In 2017 PET bottles represent 63% of production but 60% of recycling. HDPE bottle production was 34% and recycling was 38%. PP is 1.8% production compared to 1.3% recycling.[iii]

The report says that “too many consumers continue to be unaware of the significant usefulness, demand, and value of recycled plastic including HDPE, PET, and PP.[iv]  Municipalities also need to understand the benefit of recycling and assist in the education to consumers.

But millions of homes don’t have access to sufficient and convenient access to recycling collection opportunities. Consumers tend to respond to sorting when offered publicly or curbside pickup. Much work needs to be done in this area.

Recycled plastic has a value. Companies buy it to remake new resins, and so it competes with petroleum prices. Last year prices fell for what is called “bales,” plastic bales sorted and wrapped in bales for shipping.

The value of an average ton of recyclable material dropped from $188 in 2011 to $103 in a North Carolina sorting facility.[v]  Plastic recycling material has become a commodity with a worldwide market. Prices vary for many reasons, but the dropping margins mean profits to keep operations open could be threatened.

China was one of the world’s biggest importers of plastics; low wages allow careful sorting. The new mills erected in 2013 in China were filled using U.S. waste. The U.S. did export about one-third of its recycling to China. Low petroleum prices, however, can influence the prices of recycled plastic, changing the trade dynamics.

In the summer of 2017, China declared foreign waste was dirty and hazardous. So it banned 24 kinds of solid wastes.[vi]  The dynamics change without China in the market.

Recycling systems have relied on a mix of magnets, water, grinders and human pickers to try to keep and sort the waste stream into usable scrap. It is both capital- and labor-intensive. But the future may look better as robots learn how to sort much faster and more accurately. A company called Bulk Handling Systems is betting that robots can help.  Their system uses cameras and artificial intelligence to move a four-pronged arm to suck up bottles and store them. The arms are longer and faster than human arms. See this in action here.

The resin that produces the wonderful characteristics only plastic can provide is a valuable material that we don’t want lying around and can’t afford to waste.  Let’s all pull together to use this precious material responsible for our modern standard of living useful, not a burden.

[i] Figure 1. United States National Postconsumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report, 2016, American Chemistry Council. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/2016-US-National-Postconsumer-Plastic-Bottle-Recycling-Report.pdf

[ii] Figure 3, United States National Postconsumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report, 2016, American Chemistry Council. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/2016-US-National-Postconsumer-Plastic-Bottle-Recycling-Report.pdf

[iii] Figure 5 United States National Postconsumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report, 2016, American Chemistry Council. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/2016-US-National-Postconsumer-Plastic-Bottle-Recycling-Report.pdf

[iv] Page 10, Ibid

[v] Recycling is in trouble –and it might be your fault, Paul Singer,  USA Today, April 20, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/04/20/weak-markets-make-consumers-wishful-recycling-big-problem/100654976/

[vi] Recycling Chaos in U.S. as China Bans ‘Foreign Waste,’ NPR, December 9, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/12/09/568797388/recycling-chaos-in-u-s-as-china-bans-foreign-waste

 

 

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