Why Don't Americans Recycle More Plastic?

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If you’re like most Americans, you’ve been able to easily recycle for decades, but access continues to grow and more and more Americans can recycle more and more materials.

Last month, a Moore Recycling Associates study detailed American’s access to plastics recycling.

It found that more Americans can recycle more than ever before; about 40 percent can recycle plastic containers – like yogurt cups, butter tubs and lids – which is up nearly 50 percent since 2009. Also, most Americans can recycle PET, but the PET recycling rate hovers at about 28 percent.

To complicate matters further, as many recyclers are discovering, there’s a lack of PET to recycle in the U.S. Just watch the video below.

Why the disparity?

Lack of education and convenience are almost always mentioned as the main reasons why people don’t recycle.

Tom Lauria, Vice President of Communication for the International Bottled Water Association, agrees. “Recycling is misperceived as being inconvenient,” he says. “We’re asking people to do something different, but it isn’t inconvenient.”

But Lauria points to other reasons to help explain the incongruence.

“There’s a lack of accountability,” he says. “People have this as an option, but it pays to let people know that the better option is to recycle.”

Lauria doesn’t outright say that more laws should be passed, but Marglen Industries Procurement and Sales Manager, Ben McElrath, does – sort of.

“The PET recycling rate is at about 28 percent,” he says. “We don’t have the numbers broken down, but states with deposit laws, their rate is around 90 percent. Other states might be 8 or 9 percent. Those big deposit states make that 28 percent happen.”

READ: Running Out of Resin, Who’s Fault Is It?

This goes hand-in-hand with Lauria’s other point – that most people don’t see value in PET. Recycling aluminum, steel and other metals, for instance, has tangible worth. In most states, you can’t bring a plastic water bottle to a facility and get a nickel like you can for an aluminum can.

But PET has tremendous value. McElrath can attest to this, as Marglen Industries is one of the largest and most sophisticated PET recycling facilities in the United States, using solar energy to help convert 2.5 billion empty bottles each year into many useful products.

“It’s a commodity,” McElrath says. “Pricing changes every month, if not every week, if not daily. But it will always be valuable.”

Is there a solution?

Lauria and McElrath remain optimistic about the future of PET recycling. McElrath says there has been tremendous investment in building new recycling facilities, even as the material is hard to come by. “Millions have spent in the last 12 months,” he says.

Both point to increasing education and convenience as ways to promote PET recycling. “We’ve got to get the word out…,” Lauria says.

Lauria says that recycling goes beyond helping the environment; it’s a matter of economics.

“It’s a practical way for people to help the economy, and it’s quicker and cheaper to produce bottles with recycled PET,” he says. “Someone told me that plastic is the paper of the 21st century. That means we have to be practical with how we economize it. We need to work with businesses and show them we can make money on this.”

READ: Why You Can’t Ignore Plastics Recycling

McElrath says changing the mindset of Americans is important. Once businesses and consumers realize the value of PET recycling, it only follows that the recycling rate will increase.

“Consumers can help themselves by helping the environment and the economy. Both are endangered slightly; we have to take care of them and recycling is one way,” Lauria says.

Editor’s Note: 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.

SEE: Earth911′s Top Stories on Plastics

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