Recycling is an important key to sustainability

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Plastics News Alexander

A recent op-ed questioned if plastic recycling is key to sustainability (Nov. 7). Contrary to the opinion expressed in the op-ed, the short answer is an unqualified yes.

Plastics recycling means repeated use of the molecules that constitute the polymers. “One and done” as proposed by those who would include certain additives in packaging or incinerate the polymers wastes resources. The United Nations definition of sustainability focuses on greenhouse gas emissions. Life cycle assessments have consistently shown recycling plastics generates fewer kilos of greenhouse gases than does virgin plastic production. In fact, APR is currently conducting the most comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment of recycled plastic resin to date. Other studies show plastics generate fewer kilos of greenhouse gases than do other materials to make the same functional unit. The LCA-supported conclusion is getting multiple uses from the polymer molecules via recycling is the sustainable choice.

Hands down, recycling is a better solid waste management choice. Actions that hinder or interfere with the ability of plastics to be recycled should be ignored by packaging decision makers. For that reason, the Association of Plastic Recyclers provides its APR Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability, a step-by-step overview of what packaging designs and innovations render the package recyclable.

Has plastics recycling been hurt by low petroleum prices? Various publications have reminded us of that fact for some time. Still, we saw the tons of used HDPE bottles reclaimed in the U.S. increase for 2015 at twice the rate of gross domestic product increase. That is a good sign that unsubsidized, private-sector plastics reclaimers can compete well. We see investment in equipment improvements and in reclaiming capacity. The investments mean better quality recyclate at lower costs. A plastics bottle collection rate of 31 percent or 32 percent means there is growth opportunity. Even in tough times we have seen new entrants to the reclamation community. We have also seen recycled plastics being used in applications with more stringent performance criteria. Food-grade PET recyclate is widely achieved and widely utilized.

Post-consumer plastics recycling is still a young industry. Its reality is not every plastic item is going to be a candidate of recycling this day. Even so, it has grown well over the years with occasional hiccups as all private sector industries experience. Inhibiting plastics recycling with simplistic solutions that ultimately cost the public more is a poor choice.

Steve Alexander

President of the Association of Plastic Recyclers