Washington — The U.S. plastic bottle recycling rate held steady at 29 percent in 2018, and depending on who you listen to, that was either evidence of industry strength in a tough business or that bottle recycling was falling flat in its attempts to become more sustainable.
Two industry trade groups released the 2018 report on Dec. 18 and argued that while the rate and pounds collected were essentially unchanged, there were positive trends. They pointed to continued expansion of domestic U.S. bottle recycling and growing demand for recycled content plastic because of commitments from large consumer product companies.
"Plastics recycling is a vibrant, resilient industry that continues to remain strong in a challenging environment," said Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers in Washington, one of the groups that put out the report.
"Despite the reduction in export markets, demand for quality recycled material remains robust, and many recyclers are investing in updating and expanding our domestic infrastructure to meet that demand," he said.
But the environmental perspective was different, with stagnant or falling recycling rates meaning that the industry is not making measurable progress.
The head of the Container Recycling Institute said increasing use of plastics in bottles and falling recycling rates in recent years mean that the U.S. is increasing the amount of plastic bottle waste it sends to landfills and incinerators.
Culver City, Calif.-based CRI estimated that the U.S. trashed about 7.2 billion pounds of plastic bottles in 2018, compared with 5.5 billion pounds landfilled or incinerated in 2000.
"As a result of the increased production levels and the declining recycling rates, we are throwing away more and more plastic bottles each year," said CRI President Susan Collins. "Compared to the year 2000, we're creating 30 percent more plastic bottle waste."