Plastics recycling in the European Union will keep improving but will see little change in the United States and China for the next five years, according to a new study.
The recently published white paper by USA Strategies Inc. in Willowbrook, Ill., and European Marketing Group BV in Bergen-op-Zoom, Netherlands, states that government intervention is the factor that sets recycling trends.
In the EU, which currently is anticipating new recycling-related legislation, consumer interest and government involvement in plastics recycling are high. In the U.S., consumer interest is moderate, but government involvement is low.
In China, consumer interest and government involvement are both low.
Europe produces more than 46 billion pounds of post-consumer plastic waste every year, and 16.5 percent is recycled. Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Spain are ranked the top five countries in number of recycling plants.
Recycling rates in new EU member countries usually go up as they begin to implement the region's recycling legislation.
In Europe, government programs seem to be effective in increasing consumer participation. The region's end-of-life directive, which requires manufacturers to take more responsibility for processing industrial waste, has led to design innovations for easier disassembly and reuse of products.
The EU also launched a research initiative aimed at creating a system that can recycle a mix of five different resins or more.
American manufacturers, meanwhile, have moved proactively to process scrap material in-house, but post-consumer recycling is well behind European standards. The U.S. also lacks business motivation to recycle, the white paper says. Plastic scrap is still sorted manually and the recycling process is time-consuming and expensive. Meantime, however, the growing attention on sustainability has led to a renewed focus on recycling, particularly from retailers.
Bioresins also are gaining attention, but they degrade only when composted, not landfilled, posing a challenge in the United States, where most garbage is landfilled.
China has few regulations or specific policies that offer incentive for recycling. Few Chinese consumers are aware of the country's heavy dependency on imported resin and the benefits of recycling. Without sufficient environmental education, Chinese consumers are unable to distinguish between recyclable and nonrecyclable products.
China uses buy-back programs that provide a monetary return as motivation for its citizens. However, most existing Chinese recyclers are small and midsized companies with little sharing of technology. The primitive recycling process creates new pollutants and aggravates China's environmental problems, the white paper said.