An industry coalition working to turn around falling access to polypropylene packaging recycling in curbside programs believes its early investments are paying off and it's making "meaningful progress" toward its goals.
But a group that will assess one of those key goals — the ability to label PP packaging like yogurt cups, margarine tubs and Keurig coffee pods as "widely recyclable" in the United States — cautions that measuring progress is complex.
The Polypropylene Recycling Coalition formed last year with $35 million from major consumer brands and plastics firms to funnel grants to local materials recovery facilities to get more Americans access to recycling PP.
The impetus was a decision by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in early 2020 to downgrade the ranking of polypropylene in its popular How2Recycle labeling system, meaning PP could no longer be marketed as "widely recyclable" because of shortcomings in the market.
Instead, PP packages have to be labeled "check locally," a significant change for companies under pressure from consumers to use easily recyclable packaging.
In comments at the online Plastics Recycling Conference in April, a leader of the PP recycling group said she sees a pathway to getting back the "widely recyclable" status, which includes having 60 percent of the U.S. population with access to recycling of the material, under federal government guidelines.
"What we do believe is that polypropylene itself is very close to that 60 percent access," said Sarah Dearman, vice president of circular ventures for The Recycling Partnership, which is coordinating the recycling coalition.
"We've largely zeroed in on that and are making meaningful progress," Dearman said. "We believe we are making the progress that's needed to get back over that threshold in the very near future."
In a March 31 news release, the PP coalition announced a new round of grants that will bring its total funding to $3 million for upgrading materials recycling facilities to better sort PP and expand recycling education.
It said that will bring PP recycling access to 7.2 million more people in the U.S., or an additional 3 percent of U.S. households.
"We are laser focused on getting that widely recycled status back, though we're definitely not going to stop there," she said.
The coalition will continue working on increasing PP recycling, she said, noting that many of its members are looking at more ambitious recycling goals, like getting PP packaging to a 30 percent recycling rate target called for by groups like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in its New Plastics Economy project.
PP containers and packaging in the U.S. are nowhere near that, however: They had a recycling rate of only 2.7 percent in 2018, the last year figures are available, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.
"Getting the access is not going to be enough," Dearman said. "As we work toward 60 percent access, we're also aiming of course to increase that recycling rate and we'll have a lot more work to do there."