Every year, Americans dispose of billions of plastic bottles each year. On the surface, plastic bottle recycling in the United States looks like an excellent way to reduce waste and prevent the extraction of virgin materials. Curbside recycling programs span the United States and have become a staple in the waste management. In fact, plastic bottle recycling rates by weight have increased for the last 25 years consecutively. In 2014, the total weight of plastics collected for recycling grew by 3.3 percent or 97 million pounds. This seems like good news for the environment and our local cities and towns, but is it?
Although recycling programs are widespread, a mere 23 percent of disposable water bottles are actually recycled. While the weight of recycled plastic has grown for 25 years, so has the population in the United States. Here are three popular myths about recycling plastic bottles, along with an explanation of the real deal.
Myth 1: Recycling plastic always reduces waste
Let’s briefly explore the history of beverage bottles to gain insights into plastic bottle recycling. The first polyethylene terephthalate (PET) disposable soda bottle was introduced back in 1975. Previously, people used refillable glass bottles, putting the burden on businesses to transport, clean and refill bottles. Creating a lightweight disposable bottle was simpler for businesses, especially since the cost of the bottle was passed onto the consumer. Plastic bottles are convenient because they do not break as easily as glass bottles and are lighter to transport, saving energy. The use of disposable plastic bottles also encouraged centralized beverage manufacturing, because the glass bottles no longer needed to be returned to a facility.
Back in the 1970s, however, cities and towns were overwhelmed by the quantities of plastic packaging in the waste stream and started demanding solutions, according to Samantha MacBride, author of the book Recycling Reconsidered. The plastic packaging and beverage industry was encouraging recycling initiatives instead of regulating or banning disposable plastic packaging. Now, decades later, disposable plastic packaging is barely regulated, thus the burden of waste management falls on local governments and not beverage producers. Sadly, plastic recycling is so complex that lots of materials end up in landfills and plastic is often transported across the globe to find markets for the recycled materials.
Although plastic bottle recycling certainly can reduce waste, it has also helped prevent regulating and encouraging more systemic sustainable practices. There are so many different types of resins and processes used in manufacturing plastic bottles, making sorting and recycling infinitely more complicated and expensive. Now that the commodity price for plastic is down due to low oil prices and sluggish demand from China, there is less demand for the recycled plastic. Sadly, some recycling plants have closed and lots of plastic is going to landfills. If oil prices increase, this may be a temporary trend.
Myth 2: The current system of recycling plastics is an adequate long-term solution to waste issues
Recycling plastic has become incredibly complex. There are many different types of plastic made from many different types of resins. Many plastic recycling collection centers must manually sort these materials to avoid contamination. This process is both time-consuming and expensive, although the good news is that this creates lots of sorting and bundling jobs. As a result of the complexity, a lot of plastic containers aren’t actually recycled, although plastic recycling rates by weight have climbed slowly over the past 25 years, relatively. This number is as high as it is because states with bottle deposits have higher recycling rates, helping to boost the national average.
Just because a plastic bottle has recycling arrows on the bottom doesn’t actually mean it is recyclable in a given area. The system is complicated and often comes down to simple economics. Is it financially viable to collect, sort and transport the plastics to markets that can purchase them? A lot of plastics are sent to China to be recycled, but this often isn’t financially viable if there is not adequate demand and therefore an adequate price to justify all the required preparation.
Interestingly, plastic containers that share the same number can’t necessarily be recycled together. For example, a #2 yogurt tub cannot be recycled with a #2 milk jug. This is because a different process was used to create the two types of packaging and they respond differently to heat during the recycling process. If proper sorting of plastic containers doesn’t occur, a batch can become contaminated and will need to be discarded. Because plastic recycling has become so complex, it increases the cost of recycling, makes contamination more common, and lowers the amount of eligible materials. Although recycling in general is a good partial long-term solution to waste management, plastic recycling needs to be simplified to make it more financially viable and effective.
Myth 3: Plastic bottles cannot be recycled into new plastic bottles
Although this was largely true in the past, this is changing. CarbonLITE Industries recycles more than 2 billion PET bottles into food-grade post-consumer PET and is one of the largest producers of food-grade recycled PET in the world. Their vision is to make recycled plastic bottles from disposable bottles, not virgin materials. Some beverage companies have been increasing the demand for recycled plastic bottles, closing the loop on recycling. For example, Resource Natural Spring Water now offers 100 percent rPET recycled water bottles for all its bottled water nationwide.
“Currently, under one-third of PET materials in the U.S. are recycled and brands such as Resource, with their commitment to 100 percent rPET packaging, represent a pivotal shift in the industry to improve recycling standards among corporations and consumers,” said Leon Farahnik, founder and chief executive officer of CarbonLITE Industries LLC.
As consumers, it is important to let companies know this is important. People can help shape corporate actions and priorities. Creating a domestic demand for recycled plastic helps increase the commodity price, making it more worthwhile for recyclers. It is often consumer demand, too, that encourages companies to try innovative recycling initiatives, such as Patagonia making fleece from recycled plastic bottles.