The low recycling rates for plastics in the United States obscure the fact that the recycling industry has made significant environmental strides recovering certain types of plastics and sending them back into the manufacturing stream.
At issue is that “plastics” is an umbrella term for a diverse array of materials, some more easily recycled than others. For example, many single-use plastics are difficult to recycle, given current technological limits. In addition, plastic is often infused into other materials like packaging, making it difficult to recover for recycling. But other plastics, such as the material used in soda bottles and laundry detergent bottles, are recycled often — at three times the average recycling rate.
The good news is that recycling technologies for plastics are advancing, and as a result, companies are stepping up recycling plastics that have traditionally been considered hard to recycle. These include PVC products, such as plumbing and irrigation pipes and drains, and plastic film used for everything from shielding crops to grocery bags. Recyclers processed at least 1 billion pounds of U.S. plastic bags and film in 2017, up 54 percent since 2005.
Scientists and recyclers have developed several technologies for plastics recycling during the past decade, some of which are highly developed, with others still in their infancy. Robotics, artificial intelligence, optical scanners, laser separation and other sophisticated technologies are now commonly found in recycling operations, allowing recycling to get better and do more.
More high-tech advances are in the pipeline. Recyclers are making major investments in non-mechanical, or molecular, processes to convert end-of-life plastics into recycled resin and resin precursors. These advances hold promise for processing more plastics economically and in an environmentally advantageous way.
Recycling requires constant innovation because the products and materials used across the economy are always changing. It’s a major reason recyclers are teaming with manufacturers to design new products with greater recycling in mind so that when discarded more of the plastic can be recycled. Two prime examples are plastic water bottles that are 100 percent recyclable and made from food-grade recycled plastic and certain laptop computers that eliminate the use of glues and adhesives while incorporating a modular design to allow better access to the various parts for recycling.
While there is still a long way to go, more manufacturers are increasing the use of recycled content and making products that are easier to recycle. They are recognizing the societal value, both economic and environmental, and the demand from their customer base. My organization, for example, is working closely with businesses to address product recyclability and find ways to strengthen recycling across all material categories.
At the same time, lawmakers at the state and federal levels are developing encouraging policies that increase the demand for recycled plastics through increased recycled content, helping to find a home for recyclable plastics in the manufacturing of new products.
This one-two punch of better plastics recycling technology and better product and packaging design at the front end, propelled by a legislative nudge, is expected to boost the global market for recycled plastics to $47 billion in 2026. In 2020, it stood at $33 billion. And where there is a robust market for recycled plastics, the result is fewer greenhouse gas emissions and more energy saved.
The goal is a shift to a more “circular economy,” which reduces material use and recognizes the value of recycling of-end-of-life plastics into new products and materials. To make a real difference will require a broad commitment from consumers to recycle more and choose products that can be recycled and from manufacturers, scientists, engineers and policymakers working together. I am happy to say that we are well on the road.