Recyclers have long touted the environmental benefits of using recovered plastics, pointing to both energy savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions compared with virgin resin use.
But an exact accounting of just how much brand owners and converters can promote those benefits has, for the most part, been lacking.
"We felt very strong that there are significant energy and emissions savings using recycled material in comparison to virgin, but we needed data to support that," Association of Plastic Recyclers President Steve Alexander said.
Newly released research commissioned by APR shows total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are just a fraction of outputs for virgin resin production, the trade group said.
Total energy savings were 79 percent for PET and 88 percent for both high density polyethylene and polypropylene, APR reports. Emissions reductions were 67 percent for PET and 71 percent for both HDPE and PP.
Those reduction levels were calculated using the "cut-off" method of calculation. The report indicates "all virgin material production burdens are assigned to the first use of the material, and the burdens assigned to the recycled resin system begin with recovery of the post-consumer material" through this method.
The report, authored by Franklin Associates, a division of Eastern Research Group Inc., provides such information for the first time for HDPE and PP and updates past work done by the American Chemistry Council on PET.
"There's never been one as comprehensive as this. And there has never been one for HDPE and for polypropylene," explained Alexander said. "It's one of the most expensive projects that APR has ever undertaken."
APR decided to take a deep dive into the issue about two years ago, devoting about a third of its program budget that year to the effort.
"It took us awhile. We wanted to have three-quarters of the volume in the marketplace [represented]," Alexander said. "We wanted it to be comprehensive and have some integrity and credibility."
The project cost almost "six-figures," Alexander said, and took extra time because there was a lot of back-and-forth communication between researchers and companies to gather the information that had never been requested before.
"It's all part of trying to push the message that recycling and, particularly, recycling of plastics, we believe is the true sustainability metric for plastic packaging," Alexander said.
Between the time APR commissioned the study and now, the issues of ocean plastics, single-use plastics and plastic litter has exploded. And that makes the information even more relevant, he said.
"Clearly, it's more pressing and more important now than when we started this," he said. "As the organization that represents the plastics recycling industry, we recognize we are in competition now," he said, with other approaches such as take-back programs and product bans.
For that reason, Alexander said, it is important for the plastics recycling industry push this type of data into the marketplace.
Plastic recyclers and packaging makers can point to the data to help promote the use of recycled resin. "The story is to make sure that people understand the environmental and energy and emission benefits from using a recycled resin," Alexander said. "The recycling rate, as you know, for certain products, hasn't been really elevated in a couple of years. Markets have been tough. This is another tool that we have to improve the market posture for recycled resin."
"It's really a marketing tool for the recyclers to try and extend and expand demand for our material in the marketplace," he said.
The report is available at https://plasticsrecycling.org/images/apr/2018-APR-Recycled-Resin-Report.pdf