Young man holding bin with PET plastic bottles for recycling

After five years of crisis, from China’s declaration that it would not accept contaminated U.S. recyclables to the three-year disruption of normal life caused by the pandemic, recycling is showing signs of life. Investments in new facilities and recycling technology are producing results and the National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) reported in December that #1 (PET) plastic recycling rates in the U.S. increased by 5.53% in 2021.

NAPCOR said the U.S. recyclers collected 1.9 billion pounds of PET bottles, the largest amount in history, raising the PET recycling rate from 27.1% in 2021 compared to 28.6% the prior year. Collection rates had peaked at 29.5% in 2017 — the year before China announced its National Sword policy that ended U.S. waste imports — and had been on the decline since. Across North America, the overall PET recycling rate increased to 36.8%, up 7.6% from 34.2% in 2020.

New state bottle deposit programs, extended producer responsibility laws, and PET bottle-making innovations contributed to the momentum. Companies are also beginning to design packaging for recyclability, which makes more of what we buy a candidate for the recycling bin and not the trash. But much work remains, and each of us can help.

Now Plastic Recycling Must Prove It Works

For the past 30 years, plastic recycling claims have mostly been greenwashing. Greenpeace has repeatedly criticized plastic recycling, which the oil industry has touted to justify single-use packaging since the 1990s, with little progress. PET bottles and clamshell containers are the most-recycled forms of plastic, but the overall recycling rate across all types of plastic may be as low as 5%, with another 10% of plastics burned to produce energy. At least 85% of plastics end up in a landfill and industry clean-up efforts have achieved less than 0.2% of their goals.

Today, most types of plastic are not recyclable — only plastics #1, #2, and #5 are widely recycled. Each family of plastics requires different processes. Even within a single plastic type, different melting points for specific types of packaging means they cannot be mixed. For example, PET bottles and PET thermoform clamshell packaging, although made of the same type of plastic, must be separated before they can be recycled. The clamshells melt at a lower temperature than the melting point required to recycle PET bottles.

That’s the recycling infrastructure of the past, which needs an upgrade. Investors like Close Loop Partners, which manages manages more than $200 million in capital, are making small strategic bets on technologies, attracting additional funding from companies to build new collection, sorting, and processing capacity. Progress has been slow; it takes time to invent and build technology and infrastructure.

“The 2021 increase is a powerful indicator that pandemic-driven disruptions to recycling services are getting back on track,” said NAPCOR executive director Laura Stewart in a press release. While PET collection rates in North America are now above 30%, the level the Ellen McArthur Foundation says represents a viable industry, it trails aluminum’s 50.4% U.S. recycling rate. The next step in recycling’s evolution depends on consumers — you and me — to sort and place PET into recycling bins.

boy carrying plastic containers to recycling bin

Reduced Waste and Recycling Start With Us

The challenge for plastic recycling is its long record of failure. People don’t believe the system works. The passage of new extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws in Maine, California, Oregon and Colorado during 2022 will require plastic manufacturers to fund collection and processing programs in those states. Now, 33 states have some form of EPR legislation in place, which will help finance the emergence of a new recycling infrastructure.

New laws and new investments will make recycling easier and more successful. However, the first step in the process is squarely in the hands of consumers, who decide what to buy and what to recycle. Here’s what each of us can do.

Buy less single-use plastic.

The source of the problem is plastic, which has exploded into everyday life over the past 50 years. Recycling plastic does not justify our continued use of single-use plastic because at least half of the PET bottles and clamshells purchased do land in the dump, where they endure for decades or centuries. Reducing our reliance on plastic does not have to mean cutting it out. However, it can lead to substantially less waste if you choose to eliminate plastic from your purchasing. For example, you might buy soda in cans, which are recycled at substantially higher rates.

Reducing plastic consumption and recycling the plastic you do buy can quickly lower your plastic waste by 50% or more.

Buy only 100% recycled PET bottles.

Your purchases send a signal, and you can tell the companies you buy from to use packaging that lives up to your expectations. Several major soda and water bottling companies, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Danone, and Nestlé have introduced bottles made of 100% recycled PET, known as “RPET,” in some of their product lines. But RPET supplies have not kept up with demand, and Pepsi has rolled back part of its RPET promise because of high costs. ResearchandMarkets.com suggests that today’s $8.9 billion RPET market will grow by 31.46% by 2026 in an effort to keep up with demand.

That global RPET market growth is not fast enough. In order to reach a critical level of demand that will result in lower prices as bottle makers shift to recycled materials, RPET bottles need to approach 30% of the bottled soda and water market, which the Ellen McArthur Foundation says represents a “viable industry.” Closed Loop Partners estimates that RPET can currently supply only 6% of the recycled plastic industry needs. If consumers communicate that they want packaging made only with 100% RPET and that it must be recyclable, companies will respond. Bottlers’ current promises to shift to RPET demonstrate that brands are listening.

We may pay a premium for RPET packaging in the short run but with sufficient demand, consumers can expect efficiencies in local recycling and manufacturing innovation that bring the cost down, perhaps below, that of virgin plastic.

Understand and follow your local PET recycling rules.

Plastic and other recyclables need to be clean and dry when placed in the bin, regardless of where you are. That’s where simplicity ends. The rules laid down by your local recycler will vary, so check your local recycling service site or the Earth911 Recycling Search to understand what is accepted and how it must be sorted in your community. As noted above, even though both the Coke bottle and thermoform clamshell package that contained your lettuce are made of PET (marked with a “1” surrounded by chasing arrows on the packaging), they cannot be recycled together — more than half of the recycling programs Earth911 tracks currently refuse #1 thermoform containers.

PET plastic #1 code

As bioplastic bottles come to market, they will also need to be separated from PET bottles because the two plastics have different chemical characteristics.

Another requirement that varies from place to place is whether you should leave the cap on a PET bottle. Even though the cap is made of a different plastic, it can be separated during the washing process, after the bottle and cap are ground into flakes. Yet despite the suggestion by the Association of Plastic Recyclers that caps be left on, only about half of programs in the U.S. comply. In many communities, you must take the cap off for a bottle to make it through the sorting process.

Here’s an area where bottle companies’ efforts to design for recycling are beginning to make life easier for recyclers. For example, different colors of PET should be recycled together because the color carries over into the resulting new plastic. Coca-Cola replaced the green bottle in which Sprite was sold with a clear bottle that can be recycled with its other PET bottles.

Progress Takes Time

You may be thinking that this is still too complicated, and it is. But today’s recycling system is giving way to a more effective infrastructure for the complex packaging and products we buy, albeit slowly. New EPR laws are just coming into force that will increase recycling investments by companies if they want to continue to sell their products in a growing number of states. That new funding also means your legislators and city or county council will be tuned into citizens’ satisfaction with their recycling experience.

Now is the time when plastic recyclers need to demonstrate they can make the system work or withdraw from selling plastic packaging. You’ve never had as much leverage on recycling issues as today, so it’s up to us to learn and use the system so that we can all improve it together.

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com and the sustainability leader at Metaforce, a global marketing firm. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their buying decisions on the planet.