Post-consumer plastic film recycling sustained a massive decrease, wiping away years of incremental increases, as a result of China's crackdown on U.S. imports of the material.
A new report by research and consulting firm More Recycling Inc. for the American Chemistry Council indicates 1.01 billion pounds of film were collected for recycling in 2017 in the United States, down from 1.32 billion pounds in 2016.
The single-year drop of 315 million pounds, brought on by the National Sword program China implemented against a wide range of recycled imports in 2017, returned the U.S. recovery rate to near 2011 levels.
"China has dominated markets for recycled commodities including plastics and paper for decades, so the drop in exports was anticipated as a result of China's new policy. New markets won't be developed overnight but the industry is taking steps to accelerate that transition," Steve Russell, vice president of the ACC plastics division, said in an email interview.
With annual recycling reports tracking commodities, changes are often in the single digits, so a 24 percent drop in one year is out of the ordinary.
The impact of National Sword has been felt on the ground at recycling facilities and on loading docks, so the fact that the number dropped is no surprise. The report just quantifies just how much the market has changed.
Film recycling has been gaining traction over the years as plastic recyclers look to better educate the public about the opportunities to recapture the material.
That category had grown for 12 years, ACC reported. But the latest statistics put the United States back to just below 2011 recovery levels. The trade group said the new lower total is still 54 percent higher than the 2005 recovery level.
Plastic film includes products such as bags, stretch film and flexible product wrap, ACC said. Those products are typically made from high, low and linear low density polyethylene.
Exports fell by 46 percent year over year and represented 38 percent of the total collected for recycling. Domestic use, defined as reprocessing in both the United States and Canada, accounted for the other 62 percent.
A silver lining to the new number is that domestic purchasing of recycled film actually increased by 2 percent from 2016 to 2017.
"The more important thing in the report is strong domestic recycling. We anticipate continued growth in domestic recycling as we see increasing investment in domestic recycling and advanced recycling and recovery. There are many examples in 2019 alone," Russell said.
He pointed to new domestic film recycling projects as well as work to develop new end markets for the material by his trade group and the Plastics Industry Association as proof the industry is responding.