Plastics recyclers are willing to do their part to increase recycling rates in the United States, but they are currently constrained by supply available to their facilities, according to a trade group representing them.
And, by the way, those recycling rates are not as bad a people are being led to believe, according to the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
The trade group is out with a new report to give its perspective on the state of plastics recycling in the United States these days, saying residents are too often hit "with discouraging — and usually misleading — data points."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts plastics recycling at 9 percent overall and others say the numbers are even lower, at 5-6 percent. But plastics such as water and soda bottles, laundry detergent bottles and food containers "do get recycled," APR said.
APR put the combined recycling rate for PET, high density polyethylene and polypropylene rigid plastic packaging at 21 percent in 2020 and 28 percent for just PET and HDPE.
"The reason why the recycling rate for PET and HDPE has been a little bit stagnant has nothing to do with the recyclability of the material," or recyclers' ability to handle more volume, said Kate Eagles, program director at APR. She made her comments during an Aug. 10 webinar following the release of a new APR report called "Recommit, Reimagine, Rework Recycling."
"Arguably, PET and HDPE have the greatest potential for recycling growth," Eagles said. "It really has to do with the fact that we're not collecting enough, getting enough of this material in the bin."
The recycling infrastructure has the ability to achieve more than a 40 percent combined recycling rate for these two resins, just by using current capacity, APR said.
APR CEO Steve Alexander said there are five keys to success in plastic recycling, and recyclers are doing their part in four of them: design, sortation, processing and markets. But the availability of supply continues to hamper efforts to increase recycling rates.
"What recyclers can't control is the supply of material," Alexander said. "When people talk about the fact that, 'Oh, there is not enough recycling.' Well, we can only recycle what is made available to us to recycle.
"This isn't a whining session. This is just a facts session," he said.
"The plastic packaging that is causing a huge outcry and the biggest issue we have to deal with is plastic packaging and containers that reaches the consumer. Consumer facing — that's what we need to deal with. Eighty percent of consumer packaging is comprised of three resins: PET, high density and [PP]. There is no reason, zero reason, that all recycling programs across the United States should not include at least, at a minimum, those three containers," he said.
"Today, those three resins, we recycle them at a 21 percent rate [combined average]. We have the capacity to almost double that today. So supply is a huge problem we ... need to continue to work on," Alexander said. "What we need is market certainty."
APR's presentation comes at a time when plastics and plastics recycling continue to attract broad cultural attention. That debate is not going to end anytime soon.
Plastics, maybe more than ever, are under attack. And while there can be debate on how much plastic should be in everyday life, there also are indisputable market forces and technological advances that ensure the material will have a place, he said. Think of medical and vehicle applications as two quick examples.
Anti-plastics sentiment certainly has gained significant ground in recent years, causing everyday Americans to reconsider their relationship with resin to one degree or another. Plastic straws and expanded polystyrene foam containers are two quick examples.
APR calls itself the "Voice of Plastics Recycling" — the group even trademarked the phrase — and wants to be in this conversation as an advocacy group. This comes at a time when the chorus opposing plastics is loud, but also when money continues to flow into the plastics sector as investors see opportunity.
"Supply is a huge problem we need the country to work on," Alexander said.
The overall plastic recycling rate of 9 percent is impacted by "containers, packaging and durable goods meant to last many years as well as nondurable goods not intended for recycling like garbage bag," the report states.
APR points out that plastic recyclers handled 4.8 billion pounds of post-consumer plastics in 2020 despite the pandemic, and Alexander expects the number will grow.
"Still, recycling numbers can, and should, be much higher, given that what we fail to recover is waste left for future generations to wade through," the report states.