Post-consumer plastic recycling volumes took it on the chin in 2020 amid COVID-19, dropping by more than 5 percent from the previous year, according to new numbers released April 22.
The latest data has well-known recycling officials calling for more supply, more investment and "immediate solutions."
The United States recycled a total of 4.8 billion pounds of post-consumer plastics, including bottles, film, nonbottle rigids and other plastics. That's down 290 million pounds, or 5.7 percent, from 2019 numbers, statistics show.
COVID-19, which ravaged the world's way of life starting in early 2020, obviously had a significant impact on recycling volumes.
"There's a number of factors here, and I think one of the biggest is communities stopped collecting material," Steve Alexander, CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, said in an April 22 interview. "The supply chain for plastics to be recycled was impacted just like everything else. You can't recycle something that is not available to you."
COVID-19 also created disruptions in collection, transportation and staffing along with impacting supply, the report states.
Alexander said plastic recyclers have the capacity to take on more material.
"We need supply of material. Recyclers have capacity. Look, let's be consistent with our messaging. Help us get more material in the stream. We need two big things: We need companies to design their packaging so it's recyclable, and we need consumers to put more material in the bin. We'll take care of the rest," Alexander said.
Key priorities, he said, include "expanding and streamlining" collection programs, better labeling and a reduction in recycling stream contamination through better product design.
The report, authored by research firm Stina Inc., is based on surveys by that company, as well as the National Association for PET Container Resources. The study is sponsored by APR, the Foundation for Plastic Recycling, The Recycling Partnership and the U.S. Plastics Pact.
PET and high density polyethylene made up 98.8 percent of all bottles recovered in 2020, with PET accounting for the lion's share of the total at 64.4 percent. HDPE was second at 34.4 percent. The combined bottle recycling rate was 27.2 percent in 2020, down from 28.7 percent in 2019, according to the new statistics. PET bottle recycling was pegged at 27.1 percent and HDPE at 28.8 percent.
Bottles, in total, made up 57.1 percent of the total material recycled, followed by nonbottle rigids at 22 percent and film at 20.5 percent. Other plastics accounted for 0.3 percent.
"The 2020 U.S. Post-consumer Plastic Recycling Data Report shows that we need investment in the U.S. recycling system to boost the recycling rate for all materials, including plastics," CEO Keefe Harrison of The Recycling Partnership said in a statement. "We can quickly change U.S. recycling rates by making sure that the 40 million American households who currently lack equitable recycling access get it."
Alexander said he is concerned that the new numbers will send the wrong message to people who are looking to push aside plastic recycling.
"People don't look at the full picture. They look at the number and say, 'Recycling doesn't work. Let's just ban everything.' That's 180 degrees from where we need to be," Alexander said.