A national drop in plastics recycling points to a need for better collection efforts, according to a trade group leader close to the issue.
"I think it shows a weakness in our collection system in this country. We know that plastic recyclers have the capacity to recycle more material. We just can't get our hands on this," Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, said.
His trade group includes companies from throughout the plastics recycling industry, but a core focus is with plastics reprocessors.
"There's more material out there. The rate is going down. To me, it just reinforces that narrative that we really need to focus on our ability to capture the material we can recycle," Alexander said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released its biennial report on trash and recycling in the United States.
The newest statistics provide information from 2017 and updates statistics from 2015.
The amount of plastics recycled fell by nearly 6 percent in tonnage from 2015 to 2017. The overall plastic recycling rate fell from 9.1 percent in 2015 to 8.4 percent in 2017.
A total of 34.5 million tons of plastics were generated in 2015, with 3.14 million tons recycled, according to EPA.
The U.S. generated 35.37 million tons of virgin plastics in 2017, according to the EPA report. But while overall plastics production increased, the recycling total decreased to 2.96 million tons.
"I think this whole effort to enhance the collection infrastructure and the sorting infrastructure in this country is only reinforced by that narrative. There's more material out there, the rate is going down. How come we are not collecting more material and what do we have to do to collect more material?" Alexander asked.
While collection efforts need to be stepped up, he said, education also is a key component. There's too much plastic that's readily available in homes that simply gets thrown away, he said.
Consumers are more likely to recycle plastics from their kitchens than from their bathrooms, for example.
"It's only going to add to the negative narrative of plastics, even though it's minor," Alexander said about the decrease. "I think we have to do a much better job of explaining the situation, explain what consumers can do.
"We have to do a better job explaining what really happens in the system. Any decline is not going to be perceived as positive," he said.
Plastics recycling has been influenced by China's decision to no longer accept recycled materials for processing. And while that outlet has been shut down, there still is a growing demand for recycled plastics by brand owners.
Many companies have stepped up their commitments to use more recycled plastics in their packaging, setting sometimes-aggressive goals to incorporate more of the material.
"It doesn't matter what the commitments are or the requirements are. If we can't get the material, we can't recycle it. Recyclers have the capacity to recycle more material. Not only that, we know investors are on the sidelines waiting to make investments in additional recycling and processing capacity just waiting to see if there is enough material," Alexander said.