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Economics may not be the most interesting (or understandable) subject for some. But the concept of “supply and demand” is one that anyone can understand, even at a base level.

Like all commerce, supply and demand is a vital idea in the business of recycling. But when it pertains to plastic bottles, there is an unexpected imbalance: U.S. demand outweighs our supply.

Recycling rates for plastic bottle plastics have slowly risen over the past six years or so, at a slow, but not insignificant rate. However, as companies look to use more recycled plastics in their products – the amount of recycled PET used in packaging increased 24 percent in 2009 – and commerce overseas continues at a strong pace, recycling in the U.S. is not generating enough post-consumer product to keep up with the requirements that the market (and consumers) is demanding.

Here’s a look at why it’s more important than ever to make sure the plastic bottle in your hand doesn’t see this side of the landfill:

The Math

According to a 2009 Report on Post Consumer PET Container Recycling Activity prepared by the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), “Total RPET [recycled PET] end use consumption was 937 MMlbs, the highest converter consumption figure to date.” While a majority of this material was generated in the U.S. and Canada,  a whopping 174.7M pounds was imported from in countries all over the world.

“There were 1.44 billion pounds of PET containers collected in the U.S., but more than 700 million pounds are being sold offshore to China to be manufactured into products being used in the Chinese domestic market and exported,” says Dennis Sabourin, executive director of NAPCOR.

Recycling items like plastic bottles enables U.S. manufacturers to continue to use recycled plastic in products like carpet, filling, clothing and bottles. Photo: Flickr/dotjay

Sabourin also notes that with a total processing capacity of 1,247 million pounds, the U.S. already has an infrastructure in place to recycle “more than twice of what is being reclaimed.”

But why the imbalance?

According to Sabourin, the cost of shipping and the price that overseas buyers are willing to play for the plastic results in more product going offshore.

“The way the commerce is setup is basically […] If I have a bale of PET in California, and I’m going to ship that bale either to China or to a major carpet market in Georgia, it costs me only about a penny per pound to ship to China, but 7 cents a pound to ship it to Georgia, because there’s so much commerce coming our way by way of Asia.”

Lori Brown, senior communication and outreach manager, government relations and industry affairs for Earth911, recently attended the Plastics Recycling Conference in New Orleans where the supply and demand topic was hotly discussed.

“The answer basically boils down to the price being offered for the post-consumer plastic,” she says. “Think of it like an auction: If you’re in the business of selling a commodity, operating under the principle of selling to the highest bidder just makes the most business sense. Simply put, Chinese buyers can usually offer more for the post-consumer plastic than domestic buyers can.”

The point: Even though we are recycling a huge quantity of plastic bottles, a significant portion of that material will not end up in the U.S. Americans have a huge opportunity (and the capacity) to recycle more.

The Fix

plastic bottle bales

Bales of plastic bottles can be sold at higher prices and shipped less expensively to China than in the U.S. Photo: Flickr/siftnz

Brown echoes the consistent lamentations of plastic recyclers across the country, “The idea that we have a valuable resource filling our waste bins and then being landfilled, when there is a market for these commodities, is still shocking. We are throwing money and resources away each time we toss a plastic bottle into the trash bin.”

The NAPCOR report details that to achieve what would be considered an “adequte supply” of post-consumer bottles (essentially an amount that supports our existing infrastructure but encourages growth and stable pricing in the future), the recycling rate will need to increase twice the 2009 rate.

This means that, more than ever, Americans need to focus on ensuring plastic bottles make to the recycling bin.

“Education and access are the two key components to tackling this problem,” says Brown. “Perhaps consumers have been instructed to recycle for environmental reasons, but they may not understand the economic implications of tossing out that plastic bottle versus recycling it.

Access to recycling is another critical component. Though PET and HDPE are largely accepted in curbside programs, consumer access to recycling those materials in public spaces is still lacking in most areas.”

According to Sabourin, there are four key reasons why increasing recycling rates for plastic bottles is important:

  1. Every pound of PET that recycled saves petrochemical feedstock (oil)
  2. The cost to convert a recycled material to an end product is (or the energy utilized) is significantly less
  3. Because of the available and improved lifecycle inventories (LCIs), the carbon footprint for recycled material to a finished good is significantly less than its virgin counterparts
  4. In the process, “you are creating jobs, which are green jobs”

“So everything the administration has been trying to tell us to do is right there in what people are throwing in the dump,” he adds. “The answer is in our hands.”

Brown says that the impact consumers can have collectively is significant, and even gives a helpful tip (yes, this is self-serving!) to help people find recycling in their area: “Tools like Earth911’s website, toll-free bilingual hotline, 1-800-CLEANUP and iRecycle® iPhone app are all here to make recycling information simple and accessible. You don’t have to be a recycling expert to recycle, just seek a little help from us if you’re ever in doubt!”

You may also like…
Pepsi to Install ‘Dream Machines’ in D.C. Area
5 Ways to Be a Better Recycler
Why Greening China is a National Priority

Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. The International Bottled Water Association is one of these partners.

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