Post-consumer plastics recycling has increased by almost 300 million pounds on a year-over-year basis in the United States, recovering from a decrease that happened during the first year of the pandemic, according to new statistics.
Recyclers, in total, acquired more than 5 billion pounds of post-consumer plastics in 2021 in the United States, an increase of 280.3 million pounds from 2020, according to the 2021 Post-consumer Plastic Recycling Data Report.
Of the total amount, 4.286 billion pounds went to U.S. recyclers. That number increased to 4.693 billion pounds for North American plastic reclaimers, and another 391 million pounds were exported elsewhere. That totals 5.084 billion pounds for the year.
Statistics released April 11 come from the new report sponsored by the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, two trade groups, as well as The Recycling Partnership and the U.S. Plastics Pact. The report was prepared by Stina Inc. based on surveys conducted by that research and consulting firm and information from the National Association for PET Container Resources, another trade group.
"In order to see bigger increases, there's a need for systematic change led by public policy to drive collection, improve sortation and stabilize demand for recycled resins.," APR CEO Steve Alexander said in a statement. "The 2021 rate report shows the strength of the recycling industry, as they face ongoing challenges including competition with low disposal costs, collection rates, and virgin resin prices."
The rebound in collection in 2021 featured increased volume in what the groups called "all major categories of plastics" — bottles, non-bottle rigids and films.
Within the overall increases, however, there were declines in high density polyethylene bottles and polypropylene collection.
Bottles accounted for 2.887 billion pounds, or 56.8 percent of the post-consumer total. Non-bottle rigids checked in at 1.07 billion pounds, or 21.1 percent, and film was 1.11 billion pounds, or 21.8 percent. Other plastics totaled 20.2 million pounds, or 0.4 percent.
Bottle recycling increased by 142.5 million pounds in 2021, primarily thanks to an increase of 163.8 million pounds, or 9.3 percent, of PET bottles. This increase offset a 16 million-pound, or 1.7 percent, decline in the natural HDPE bottle, or milk jug, market. Non-bottle rigids increased by 13.6 million pounds, and film jumped by 120.5 million pounds.
"If we expect to achieve true recyclability, we need high demand for recycled plastics. Achieving true recyclability, as well as using higher percentages of PCR requires significantly greater tonnages of recycled plastics," U.S. Plastics Pact Executive Director Emily Tipaldo in a statement.
U.S. Plastics Pact is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's work to create a circular economy for plastics. The Recycling Partnership, which also provided funding, is a non-profit that seeks to increase curbside recycling of all recyclables, not just plastics, around the country.
The new report pegs the post-consumer PET bottle recycling rate at 28.7 percent and HDPE bottle recycling rate at 28.9 percent. Both are closely watched figures. The overall bottle recycling rate was 28.2 percent.
While the overall amount of post-consumer plastics increased by 5.8 percent from 2020, the latest figures are about the same as what was collected the previous three years prior to COVID-19. And those numbers are lower than a three-year upward trend between 2014 and 2016.
Stina indicated survey participation is voluntary. Because participation is not 100 percent, the totals "represent the minimum amount of the plastic categories recovered for recycling and sold in the marketplace."