Despite what you may have heard, plastics recycling is not dead. There are plenty of successful companies that recycle post-consumer and post-industrial plastics.
I've been seeing a lot of news stories declaring that plastics recycling is a myth. They are the result of a Greenpeace report, released in October, "Circular Claims Fall Flat Again."
The reports cite low recycling rates and issues facing recyclers. Once you get past the hyperbole, some of the stories are well reported. But the hyperbole is a problem.
The media is telling consumers that it's a waste of time to recycle plastics because most plastics aren't recycled. But the fact is that there's plenty of demand for high-quality recycled plastics.
Paul Gardner, chair of Recycling Association of Minnesota, recently wrote a good column on recyclers' view of plastics.
In "Yes, we do want (some of) your plastic," in Minnesota Reformer, he wrote: "The good news is that three types of plastic containers are highly recyclable and in demand," namely PET, high density polyethylene and polypropylene. That's mostly soda bottles, milk jugs, laundry and shampoo bottles, butter tubs and yogurt cups.
But he added: "When recycling facilities get plastics that aren't accepted for recycling, they must pay to dispose of them. We understand that consumers find symbols and instructions confusing and a bit irritating."
Gardner noted that there is demand for plastic bags, but not from municipal curbside recycling programs. "We can recycle plastic bags into products like plastic decking, but putting them in your recycling is a huge problem. They get caught up in equipment and force recycling facilities to shut down every day to cut them loose. Please recycle clean and dry bags at local retailers," he wrote.
All of those points should be obvious to Plastics News readers, but I'm afraid they aren't to consumers. And it's important to the plastics industry that consumers get this right because brand owners want to keep using plastic, but they will switch to other materials if that's what regulators require.
Supply and demand are cyclical, but over the long term, demand for post-consumer plastic is growing, thanks to both voluntary and mandated recycled-content goals. But quality is important. Processors can't put garbage into their extruder or injection press and expect to make a valuable product.
I'm not blaming consumers for plastics' low recycling rate. That's largely an industry problem. A lot of plastics — even single-use plastics — can't be collected and recycled profitably. That's typically the result of a conscious decision to use or design products based on factors other than recyclability, like cost or convenience.
My advice: When that's the case, don't pretend that the product is recyclable. Because while everything is technically recyclable, life would be a lot easier for recyclers if they only had to deal with plastics that can be collected and recycled profitably. I hope that someday we'll have an infrastructure where consumers can put all plastics in their curbside bins and it will all be recycled economically. But despite hyperbole — this time on the part of industry, not the media — we aren't there yet.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.