I recently read the op-ed on plastics recycling rates in The Atlantic by The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics and, like many of you, it certainly was not good for my blood pressure. The pitiful white flag of surrender raised by the reports’ authors certainly does not speak for the tens of thousands of Americans employed by our industry who, amidst a global pandemic, recycled nearly 5 billion pounds of plastic in 2020.
I received calls and emails from a number of Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) members pointing out that the authors’ disingenuous claim of low recycling numbers was achieved by parsing data, resulting in publishing an unfair and distorted assessment of our industry for the public.
Let’s be clear: The debate about plastics recycling today is focused on containers consumers buy and use daily – soda bottles, milk jugs, yogurt tubs, etc. The authors intentionally failed to acknowledge that the low numbers they cite include all plastic items, including durable plastic items not collected through community recycling programs.
The fact is that 21% of PET, PP and HDPE rigid plastic packaging – the kind of plastic that makes up the majority of consumer packaging and what consumers put in their blue bins – is recycled. For PET and HDPE bottles, 28% get recycled. We could immediately raise that recycling rate to over 40%, using our existing processing infrastructure, if we could get more material into recycling bins and collected.
Simply put, to increase recycling rates, we need to collect more material.
The authors’ suggestion that consumers switch to reusable products is not feasible for most consumers and would not make plastics “go away.”
When Americans agree on little else, we are united in support for recycling, with 85% of respondents to a 2020 survey from The Recycling Partnership and SWNS noting they “strongly believe in recycling.” At the same time, demand from brands trying to get more recycled content into their products is at a record high. It would be ludicrous to abandon plastics recycling now.
But we need to do better.
If we are serious about reducing plastic waste, we need to employ every strategy. Reusables are part of the answer, and so are robust recycling programs that collect, process and recycle products that cannot be reused, converting recycled resins into new products.
We need to bolster recycling programs so that more recyclable plastic can be collected, sorted and processed for use in new products. We can achieve that by harmonizing containers collected and upgrading the technology at the 9,000 different community recycling programs serving 20,000 U.S. communities, and by adding new programs to reach the 40 million Americans who still do not have access to recycling.
“If we are serious about reducing plastic waste, we need to employ every strategy.”
The doom and gloom portrayed by The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics is not shared by others looking at the recovery of consumer packaging and the growth of recycled content. A leading marine environmental association recently stated that the global market for recycled material was forecast to grow around 30% from 2020, but accurately pointed to the need for more feedstock to achieve real growth.
I am damn proud of our industry. Recycling is working. We see it happening every day. It’s part of the solution. Allegations that it is not are simply false and, worse, destructive to our communities, the environment and the economy.
We stand to make real progress in the battle against plastic waste. Recycling can continue to get better if we’re willing to invest in it.
Now is the exact wrong time to follow the authors’ advice and surrender. America’s plastic recyclers won’t, and we don’t think American consumers will either.
Steve Alexander is president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), an international trade association representing the plastics recycling industry. APR owns Resource Recycling, Inc., publisher of Plastics Recycling Update.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in an op-ed, please send a short proposal to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.