Friday, October 14th, 2011

Plastic Bottle Recycling Rate Increases in 2010 for 21st Straight Year

The rate of plastic bottle recycling is growing, which is certainly good news. In 2010, consumers recycled 5% more bottles (123 million lb) than they did in 2009, and that was the 21st year of growth in plastic bottle recycling . The rate of plastic bottle recycling rose to nearly 29% in 2010, and that’s certainly not bad news.

Plastic bottles being recycled

Plastic bottle recycling in America increased for the 21st straight year.

Those numbers are from the just-released 2010 United States National Postconsumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report, a cooperative effort of the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR). The report seeks to quantify the amount of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) bottles that are recycled, and also includes values for postconsumer PET recycling developed by the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR).

Looking at all the bottles collected for recycling in 2010, PET continued to be the largest share, weighing in at 1557 million pounds, followed by HDPE at 984.1 million pounds and polypropylene’s 35.4 million pounds. The rate of year-to-year increase for all plastic bottles combined was 5.0%, but it bears noting that PP grew by 31%.

Of the bottles collected in the USA for recycling during 2010, a smaller percentage was exported than in previous years. Exports of PET and HDPE decreased substantially, and although more PP bottles were recovered domestically in 2010, exports declined from 2009. Processing  recycled PET, both domestically sourced and imported, grew by 65 million lb in 2010.

This progress in recycling did not just suddenly happen. Back in the 1980s consumers began to be seriously interested in recycling, and the plastics industry took notice. Recycling companies were set up by entrepreneurs and today many of them are substantial businesses. And when these companies asked for help in identifying the various types of plastics, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association created the now familiar Resin Identification Codes (RIC). That was in 1988.

Today the RIC numbers are found on plastic products in the familiar triangle made of chasing arrows: 1-6 for the six most common plastics, and 7 for the many others. By the mid-nineties 39 states had created legislation regarding the Codes, in some cases  modifying them — and that created problems.

Resin Identification Codes were designed only to identify the type of plastic in a product and nothing else, but the modifications created confusion. Therefore, in 2008 SPI teamed up with ASTM International, the global leader in developing

and promulgating voluntary international standards. This has resulted in ASTM D7611 – Standard Practice for Coding Plastic Manufactured Articles for Resin Identification. The work continues.

There are reasons to be optimistic about continuing increases in U.S. recycling rates for bottles and other plastic products. For one, a study published earlier this year shows that 94% of Americans now have access to plastic bottle recycling—significantly more than previously believed.

Another reason for hope: People are accepting the fact that non-renewable resources are what the name says. And not only will they not last forever, they will cost more as competition for shrinking supplies becomes more intense. The rising global population – there will be seven billion of us by the end of 2011 – and the rise of prosperity in emerging economies  inevitably will increase demand for all resources.

Reusing what we already have will make even more sense in the future than it does now, and plastics, with their combination of low cost, inherent durability, and recyclability are the leading candidate for use, recycling, and reuse. It’s becoming easier to envision a day when old landfills are mined to recover plastic – by miners who can’t imagine why we ever buried it.

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