Polypropylene is one of the most widely used plastics in packaging. But difficulties with recycling are potentially putting its acceptance at risk.
At least that's the view of one of the leaders of the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, a new industry group aiming to change the trajectory of PP recycling and keep it accepted in the marketplace as a sustainable packaging material.
"We're at risk of losing polypropylene as a recycled and accepted recyclable material," said Ali Blandina, director of circular ventures at The Recycling Partnership. "We believe that there are actions to take to improve the circularity of this material so that it doesn't go away."
Blandina's group is the lead organizer of the new PP recycling group, which formally launched in July with $35 million in funding from coalition members including Keurig Dr Pepper, Braskem and the Walmart Foundation.
She spoke on a panel on recycling issues at the 2020 Plastics News Caps & Closures Conference, held Sept. 21-25, and she outlined the goals and challenges facing the coalition.
One of the immediate catalysts for bringing the PP coalition together was the decision in January by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to downgrade the status of PP from "widely recycled" to "check locally," a change that potentially sends a big signal to local recycling programs. SPC noted "uncertainty" around PP recycling.
The first goal of the effort will be to regain the "widely recycled" status, Blandina said, as she outlined some of the larger challenges facing PP recycling.
"The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has downgraded polypropylene from 'widely recycled' to 'check locally,' and different activists are challenging the use of polypropylene in general as a recycled material," she said. "As well … we have communities and recyclers that are dropping 3-7s, which includes polypropylene, from their recycling programs.
"There's just this immediate need to ensure the long-term viability of polypropylene as an accepted and recycled material," she said.
Longer term, the group wants PP to be in the same recycling position as PET and high density polyethylene and has set an official goal of having PP packaging hit a 30 percent recycling rate.
That would be more than 10 times the current rate, though.
Statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say that polypropylene containers and packaging had only a 2.7 percent recycling rate in 2017, the last year statistics were available. EPA said 7.7 percent of PP bottles were recycled in 2017, compared with 29.1 percent of PET bottles and 31.2 percent of HDPE bottles.
But the coalition is aiming for 30 percent for PP packaging because that's the rate target set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its New Plastics Economy project, she said.
Many global consumer product companies are partnering with EMF on their plastics sustainability goals and meeting the foundation's targets will be key for them, she said.
"Reaching that 30 percent recycling rate [is important] because we know that all the companies and brands and manufacturers that are signed on to Ellen MacArthur have to hit that for their packaging to be considered recyclable," she said. "We want polypropylene to be part of that."
The partnership is an industry-funded organization based in Falls Church, Va., that provides grants, technical advice and research around boosting recycling.