Recycling plastic in its various forms not only reduces America’s
dependence on energy sources, but when recycling is done right,
makes the nation’s industries that rely on plastic feedstock
more efficient and profitable in a competitive world.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), Plastics
Division, continues to be an active player in pushing for more
efficient use of plastics and for recycling this material, from
collection, processing and reuse.
Steve Russell, vice president of plastics
for the ACC, recently granted an interview to American Recycler
to discuss the latest in plastics recycling and reuse.
How has the current economic downturn affected
Russell: It is true the economic downturn
has significantly impacted key markets for plastics. However,
at the same time, recycling rates for many plastics have made
impressive gains. Even though nationwide the recycling rate for
all materials combined dropped 2.7 percent in 2008, plastics
recycling achieved increases. The total amount of bottles recycled
grew from 2.3 to 2.4 billion pounds, and the recycling rate rose
to 27 percent, a 3.2 percent increase for the year. Similarly,
the recycling of plastic bags and film grew to over 832 million
pounds, and the recycling rate for this material climbed to 13
percent, doubling in just 3 years. And the recycling of rigid
plastic containers grew almost 11 percent in a single year to
reach 361 million pounds.
Has there been any new research in sorting
Russell: Yes. In fact, ACC sponsored a newly
released study, “Demingling the Mix: An Assessment of Commercially
Available Automated Sorting Technology” (4R Sustainability, April,
2010). According to the study, as of 2008 about 120 of the 570
material recovery facilities in the United States were receiving
single-stream material. As a result, the technology offerings
for sorting equipment have increased significantly in recent
years, particularly for flake. The study examined 52 systems:
25 for sorting whole plastic containers and 27 for handling flake.
What are some of the things driving increases
in rigid plastic recycling?
Russell: Rigid container recycling is one
of the fastest growing areas in plastics recycling. Currently,
62 percent of California’s communities recycle rigid containers
and nearly 30 percent of the nation’s largest cities recycle
them. The New York City Council is poised to pass legislation
that would significantly expand the recycling of rigid containers
in the city and indirectly help to increase the recycling of
other plastics. If this legislation passes, New York City would
add important momentum to strong recent growth in recycling rigid
plastic containers. ACC testified in support of this legislation,
and we hope it will serve as a model for cities and towns around
the country. In addition, the Association of Postconsumer Plastics
Recyclers (APR) has formed a rigid plastics recycling program
of which ACC is an active member.
How has the recycling of plastic bags and
film continued to evolve?
Russell: We believe that the strong and continuing
growth we’re seeing with plastic bags and film is due in large
part to increases in access and education. According to Moore
Recycling Associates, the firm that conducts our annual survey
on recycling plastic bags and film, there are currently more
than 15,000 drop-off locations for bags and film in the United
States, most of them at major grocery stores and retailers. In
addition, some communities are starting to collect bags and film
curbside, though we’ve heard from recyclers that at-store programs
tend to yield cleaner, more desirable material. We’ve also seen
an increase in education and outreach programs at the community
level. To name a few examples, King County, Washington; Lake
County, Illinois; Philadelphia and the State of Florida have
all launched programs to help increase awareness of programs
to recycle plastic bags and wraps. Other efforts are underway
in Minnesota, Iowa and Arizona.
Do single-stream municipal recycling programs
help or hinder the collection of plastic recyclables?
Russell: One of the things we’ve learned through
the “All Plastic Bottles” program is that when we simplify what
can go into the bin, the amount of recyclable material that gets
collected goes up. Single-stream recycling offers tremendous
potential in this regard. And in localities that have energy
recovery facilities, there’s no wastage factor. Materials are
sorted at a MRF, and plastics that can’t be recycled are converted
into energy to power homes, buildings or municipal facilities.
Even in areas without energy recovery, there is evidence that
more plastics can be recovered through single-stream collection
programs. It’s documented that areas with energy recovery programs
have higher recycling rates, so the two solutions work hand-and-hand.
Are there examples of business and government
working together to raise awareness of the importance of plastics
Russell: ACC’s Plastics Division has been
working with officials in the State of California to do just
that. Since late 2007, we’ve partnered with the California Department
of Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Keep California Beautiful
to place nearly 700 recycling bins and instructional signage
on beaches in 19 coastal communities. We’ve also partnered with
LA’s BEST, a non-profit afterschool program to increase plastics
recycling know-how among 15,000 students in the Los Angeles area.
This year, we’re working with the California Department of Transportation
to place recycling bins at heavily trafficked rest stops.
We hear a lot about inefficiencies in the
recycling value chain. Does recycling actually help the environment?
Russell: Together with the Association of
Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, the National Association for
PET Container Resources and the PET Resin Association, ACC’s
Plastics Division recently helped sponsor a study that confirms
that recycling plastics, specifically PET and HDPE, results in
significant savings in energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
Combined with data from EPA, the study confirms that the generation
of cleaned recycled resin requires 71 trillion Btu less than
the amount of energy that would be required to produce the equivalent
tonnage of virgin PET and HDPE resin. In other words, the amount
of energy saved in 2008 by recycling PET and HDPE containers
(including bottles) was the equivalent of the annual energy use
of 750,000 homes.