Nashville, Tenn. — Recycling of polypropylene packaging like yogurt cups and margarine containers faces some sizable challenges, but a new industry group is launching with the ambitious goal of trying to transform it into a mainstay of household curbside recycling like PET and high density polythylene bottles.
The Polypropylene Recycling Coalition sees a chance to build on some momentum in domestic PP recycling and — in the wake of China's ban on imported recyclables that upended markets — capture recyclable polypropylene that had been sent overseas or landfilled.
But the effort faces clear headwinds, like PP currently having some of the lowest recycling rates for major resins in packaging in the U.S. And some question whether it will make economic sense for local government recycling programs to pull PP.
The city recycling programs that will be needed to collect the PP, for example, are cash-strapped after China's National Sword program in 2018 cut off what had been a major export market for the traditionally lower-value plastics, like PP, that they collect.
Still, industry officials see a chance, with technology like robotic sorting and other efforts, to build stronger markets for polypropylene, a material that's widely used — if little recycled — in packaging.
One of the new factors that makes the coalition think it could work are commitments from consumer product companies to use post-consumer resins detailed in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy project, said Ali Blandina, director of circular ventures with The Recycling Partnership, which is the lead organization in the PP coalition.
The group aims to bring in a range of stakeholders, including recyclers, plastic packaging companies, resin suppliers and consumer product companies.
Blandina said the coalition's ultimate goal is to make PP widely recycled in curbside systems.
"With the commitment, focus and action-oriented solutions-based efforts of this coalition, we will bring polypropylene to the same levels as PET and HDPE," she said.
Coalition members, though, say they have to start now.
"It's a critical time now to invest in the long-term viability of polypropylene [recycling] and in our ability to collect it and sort it," said Steve Alexander, president of the Washington-based Association of Plastic Recyclers.
The coalition will formally launch in April, when it will announce targets and investments. But officials have been discussing it in industry meetings, like APR's member company gathering Feb. 20 in Nashville, Tenn.
"There's an immediate need to ensure the long-term viability of PP plastic as an accepted and recycled material," APR said in materials distributed at the meeting.
Industry officials point to data from The Recycling Partnership that show U.S. single-family homes annually use 827,000 tons (or 1.65 billion pounds) of products packaged in PP. That works out to 17 pounds a year per household.
That's just one-third of the volume of PET bottles, but it's enough PP, they say, to generate a viable stream. Alexander said APR estimates that about 175,000 tons, or 350 million pounds, would support a national infrastructure for PP recycling.
Still, very little of that PP packaging is recovered today. PP is recycled at much lower rates than other common plastics in packaging.
EPA municipal solid waste data for 2017, the last year available, reported that less than 3 percent of PP containers and other packaging were recycled, compared with 25 percent for PET, 15.5 percent for HDPE and about 9 percent for grades of low density PE.
The Recycling Partnership and APR said the new coalition is ultimately aiming for a 30 percent recycling rate for PP, to align with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's definition of recyclable.
Blandina said HDPE and PET have higher recycling rates, but they've been in the curbside system for a long time while discussions around PP started in recent years. She pointed to cities like Sarasota, Fla., that have been able to increase PP recycling.
"We're not creating new infrastructure, but we're creating a pathway toward effectively using what exists for polypropylene and supporting innovations and advancements in technology," Blandina said. "Our goal is to improve polypropylene recycling specifically by convening stakeholders across the value chain and multiplying the impacts they would've had on their own."