Q: How much plastic is recycled?
A: The quantity of post-consumer plastics recycled has increased every year since at least 1990. In 2006 the amount of plastic bottles recycled reached a record high of 2,220,000,000 pounds1.
- The amount of PET bottles recycled in 2006 increased more than 102 million pounds compared to 2005.1
- HDPE bottle recycling increased in 2005 to 928 million pounds.1
- All plastic bottles were recycled at a rate of 24 percent in 2005.1
Q: How does plastics’ recycling work?
A: Successful recovery of plastics requires an infrastructure that can get used plastics from the consumer, process the material to valuable items of commerce, and profitably use the materials in new products. The plastics recycling infrastructure has four parts:
Rather than being discarded, plastics bottles (primarily PET and HDPE) and distribution stretch films (primarily LLDPE) are collected for recycling. Plastic bottles collection methods include curbside collection with other materials and drop-off at recycling centers and redemption centers. When the critical minimum amount of clean material can be isolated, commercial opportunities to sell truckloads of used materials begin.
Plastics from collection programs are sorted to increase their value and compacted to reduce shipping costs. To minimize transportation costs, full trailer loads, at least 30,000 pounds, of baled material are needed.
In conventional mechanical recycling, sorted plastics are chopped, washed and converted into flakes or pellets that are then processed into new products. Chemical recycling technologies process plastics back to their original building blocks (monomers or petroleum feedstocks). These can then be recycled into a number of different products, including new plastics. Either technology is successful. The economics for the two technologies differ with mechanical recycling requiring less investment and successful operation at smaller scale. Some mechanical recycling operations use unwashed plastic.
Reclaimed plastic pellets, films, or flakes are used to manufacture new products. Chemically converted plastics can become petroleum raw materials for making new plastics and other chemicals or fuel.
Q: How many communities collect plastics for recycling?
A: The US EPA states, “By 2005, almost 9,000 curbside programs had sprouted up across the nation. As of 2005, about 500 materials recovery facilities had been established to process the collected materials2”. Following an extensive nationwide survey in 1997, the American Plastics Council (APC) estimated that roughly one-half of all U.S. communities, more than 20,000, are collecting plastics for recycling, primarily PET and HDPE3. Approximately 12,000 communities collect plastics through drop-off centers. In addition, thousands of grocery stores in the United States accept plastic bags for recycling into new trash can liners and other products.
Q: Can some plastics from durable goods be recycled?
A: Yes. A primary challenge is collecting post-consumer plastics from durable goods in quantities of sufficient quality that make recycling cost-effective.
The Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRP), a consortium formed by General Motors Company, Ford Motor Corporation, and DaimlerChrysler Corporation, opened a joint research center called the Vehicle Recycling Development Center (VRDC) in conjunction with Argonne National Laboratory to develop automotive recycling technology. In 2006 the VRP was in its third year of its third Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Argonne Labs. The VRP has a collaborative agreement to develop technology to recover and recycle plastics from scrapped vehicles’ bumpers, instrument panels, seats and interior trim. Today, more than 95 percent of all vehicles in the United States go through a market-driven recycling infrastructure, with no added cost or tax to consumers. More than 75 percent, by weight, of each end-of-life vehicle (ELV) is recycled. The CRADA team is working to raise that percentage to as close to 100 percent as conceivably possible4.
In the 1990’s MBA Polymers, Richmond, CA, with support from the American Plastics Council (now the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council) developed processes to recycle appliances, computer and business equipment, automobiles, and sporting equipment. These include technology for plastics identification, sorting, improving the quality, and reducing the costs of recycled plastics from durable goods.
Research continues to evaluate recovery of telephones, more automotive parts, computer housings, refrigerator doors and cabinet liners.
Q: How many plastics recyclers are there?
A: The definition of “recycler” can mean a company that collects materials, a company that sorts collected material, a company that mechanically cleans sorted collected materials, a company that processes mixed collected materials, and a company that upgrades cleaned sorted materials. The Plastic Division’s 2007 markets update identified 1,334 businesses that handle and/or reclaim (sort, process and/or produce) post-consumer plastics domestically, and 203 businesses that broker plastics for export. Information about these businesses has been compiled into a special handlers/reclaimers database.
Q: Why is sorting so important in plastics recycling?
A: Plastics are a family of materials. There are different types of plastics, just as there are different types of metal, paper and glass. Even though they are both metals, steel and aluminum have to be separated before recycling, different colors of glass must be sorted and white office paper must be separated from newspapers and paperboard boxes. Each of the six common packaging plastics has performance characteristics that make it best suited for specific applications. Purchasers of recycled resins want to be sure that these properties are retained, so handlers sort plastics by resin type to command the highest market value. Occasionally, innovators have proposed technologies to use mixed, unsorted plastics. Some ventures have succeeded. Overall, however, sorted plastics allow for the highest valued applications for recycled plastics.
Q: What can I recycle?
A: Solid waste management, including recycling, is almost always a local activity with each jurisdiction acting independently of others. Thus, what you can recycle depends on where you live, what your individual community collects. This is determined by what market your community sells materials to. To find out what plastics recycling opportunities are available in your area, check with your county, city, or town department of public works, look under “Recycling” in the Yellow pages, or contact your local trash and solid waste hauler. The most common plastic items collected at the curbside are PET and HDPE bottles. Collecting “all bottles” is actually an efficient means of capturing the many different PET and HDPE bottles and a growing number of communities collect all bottles. Limited markets do exist for PP and PVC bottles. Some communities also collect rigid containers as well. Not all types of plastics products are generally recycled, and recycling facilities may not be available in some areas. So, please check on what is being collected in your locality.
Q: What kinds of products are made with recycled plastics?
A: The variety of products made with recycled plastics is growing. Here are just a few examples:
- Recycled PET can be used in producing new food and beverage bottles, deli trays, carpets, clothing, textiles, automobile parts, and strapping for bricks and lumber.
- Recycled HDPE can become new bottles for laundry products and motor oil, recycling bins, agricultural pipe, bags, garden edging, decking and plastic lumber.
- Recycled vinyl can become playground equipment, flooring tiles, film, and air bubble cushioning.
- Recycled LDPE can be used to manufacture bags, compost bins, and plastic lumber.
- Recycled PP can be used in automobile parts including battery casings, textiles, industrial fibers, and films used for bulk packaging.
- Recycled PS can be used in products including office accessories, garden nursery supplies, and protective package cushioning.
To help public and private sector buyers identify products made with recycled plastic, the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council lists “ The Recycled Plastic Products Directory” online that lists more than 1,600 products.
Q: Can plastic be recycled back into food contact applications?
A: Today, some recycled plastics are used in food and beverage containers. Recycled PET is used in soft drink containers5. The United States Food and Drug Administration has issued 94 opinion letters that state the Administration has no objection to specific uses of various recycled plastics in food packaging6. Various economic barriers limit widespread use of recycled plastic packaging in direct contact with food.
Q: What are advanced recycling technologies?
A: The term advanced recycling describes a family of plastics recycling processes that yield a variety of versatile small chemical products. Sometimes the term ‘feedstock recycling’ or ‘chemical recycling’ is used. These small chemical products can be the building blocks from which plastics are made. By unlinking or unzipping plastics (polymers) to their original molecular components, recyclers can produce monomers or a petroleum product that can be made into monomers (the basic units from which plastics are made) or a number of other petroleum-based products including synthesis gas. These processes produce products that are identical to virgin feedstocks and monomers used to produce new plastics. Advanced recycling technologies are practiced in circumstances when the supply of proper used plastic material, the total economic structure, and the demand for the product all are as needed.
Q: What resources are available to help increase sustainable recycling?
A: Through organizations such as the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council, the plastics industry continues to develop technologies to collect, sort and reclaim plastics more economically. The Plastics Division also focuses on durable products and commercial streams, researching new applications and end-markets for recycled plastics. The Plastics Division offers the following services and resources:
Technical Research Programs — The state of the art in plastics recycling is constantly evolving. The Plastics Division works to hasten this evolution, pursuing a wide range of technical solutions that can add greater automation and operating efficiency to each step of the plastics recycling infrastructure, from collection to end-markets. The findings from these research programs have resulted in a series of technical manuals to help advance plastics recycling across the country.
How to Collect All Plastic Bottles for Recycling – Research sponsored by the American Plastics Council, now the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry council, shows that when curbside collection programs collect all plastic bottles, the quantity of HDPE and PET bottles collected increases while the amount of plastic contamination does not. HDPE and PET bottles total 95% of all bottles used in the United States7. By concentrating on the collection of just bottles, incompatible other plastic items tend not to be included and the quality of the bottle recycling stream improves.
Sorting Plastic Bottles for Recycling
A companion to “How to Collect All Plastic Bottles for Recycling.” This guide assists Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) operators in improving the efficiency of sorting and recovering plastic containers collected from the residential and commercial recyclables streams.
Plastics Recycling in Your Schools
Plastic bottles are lightweight, shatter-proof and re-sealable, and in many instances are the preferred packaging for beverages consumed in our schools. In many instances plastic bottles may be collected for recycling through community programs or through a school’s recycling collector. Other plastic items found in schools may have recycling markets by will require individualized collection strategies. This guide will help you identify and capitalize on plastics recycling opportunities in your school and your locality.
Plastic Film and Bag Recycling
ACC’s Plastic Division recycling efforts focus on bringing awareness of plastic bag recycling to consumers by providing technical assistance in setting up plastic bag recycling programs at municipal drop-offs, working with retailers/grocers to implement new programs, or providing better signage, and helping businesses recycle polyethylene stretch film through the web resource www.plasticbagrecycling.org/.
1 American Chemistry Council, “2006 National Post-Consumer Recycling Report”. 2007
3 American Plastics Council, 1998 Community Survey, conducted by R.W. Beck,
4 USCAR News, U.S. Automakers Work to Maximize Vehicle Recycling Through USCAR and CRADA – January 8, 2006
5 GlobalGreen.org; the Coca-Cola Company
6 USFDA, CFSAN/Office of Food Additive Safety, August 2005, “Recycled Plastics in Food Packaging”
7 American Plastics Council, “Plastic Bottle Recycling Reaches Record High”, 2004