Technological watch

Faced with challenges, plastics recycling rate slips

Post-consumer plastic bottle recycling in the United States edged lower last year due, in part, to a drop in recovery of pigmented high density polyethylene bottles.

HDPE is the second-largest category of recycled post-consumer plastic bottles recycled in the country, behind PET bottles.

So the significant decrease in the pigmented portion of the HDPE recycling stream pushed the overall post-consumer bottle recycling rate down from 29.7 percent in 2016 to 29.3 percent in 2017, according to a new report from the American Chemistry Council and the Association of Plastic Recyclers.

Overall, some 2.8 billion pounds of post-consumer plastic bottles were recycled in 2017, compared with 2.906 billion in 2016.

PET bottle recycling accounted for 1.726 million pounds last year, compared with 1.753 million pounds in 2016. While that number dipped slightly, the recycling rate increased in that segment from 28.4 percent in 2016 to 29.2 percent in 2017. That’s because PET bottle resin sales dropped year over year, according to a report.

Natural HDPE bottle recycling increased from 30.1 percent to 30.7 percent, from 462.1 million pounds, to 473.8 million pounds.

But HDPE pigmented bottle recycling fell from 650 million pounds in 2016 to 568 million pounds in 2017. That’s a recycling rate decrease from 36.2 percent to 31.4 percent. And while that number dragged down the overall total, the recycling rate for pigmented HDPE last year is still higher than that for natural HDPE and PET.

The report, released Dec. 17, called 2017 “an exceedingly difficult year for plastic bottle recycling.”

Post-consumer polypropylene bottle recycling, a small segment of the market, fell by 3 percent from 20.2 to 17.2 percent, or 36.6 million to 31.1 million pounds from 2016 to 2017.

PP has been viewed as a small but growing market for post-consumer plastic bottles in recent years.

“Plastic bottle recycling is proving to be resilient in the face of short-term challenges,” APR President Steve Alexander said in a statement. The recycling industry is investing in infrastructure, which is a good sign for the long-term, he said.

ACC’s plastics division also pointed to the future.

“Increasing plastics recycling is a critical part of moving toward a more circular economy, and commitments made across the value chain — from brand owners to plastics makers to recyclers — give us good reason to be optimistic about the long-term prospects for plastics recycling,” said Steve Russell, ACC’s vice president of plastics, in a statement.

The most recent statistics now put the five-year compounded annual growth rate for plastic bottle recycling at 0.1 percent, the trade groups said.

The 106 million pound decrease in overall bottles collected for recycling represents a 3.6-percent drop from 2016 to 2017.

Factors into this decrease include lower overall resin sales into the market, light-weighting of containers and the right-sizing of containers. An example of right-sizing, over time, has been in the laundry detergent market where many manufacturers have concentrated their formulas allowing for the use of smaller bottles.

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Publication date: 17/12/2018

Plastics News

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2019-09-18