Report investigates failure of recycling to address U.S. plastic waste problem

It seems that we’re stuck in a “damned if you and damned if you don’t” scenario, as another recycling report offers a lot of the same old gripes about plastic and the problems of plastic pollution, but also condemns advances in recycling, waste-to-energy and plastics-to-fuel technology as solutions.

sorting plastic waste for recycling

A new study just released by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest, and the Environment America Research & Policy Center looks at the failure of recycling to meaningfully address the problem of too much plastic in the environment. “The State of Recycling U.S. National Survey” looks at programs in Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, providing case studies and insights into specific issues that plague recycling efforts nationwide, said PIRG’s information.

“The hard truth is that plastics are difficult to recycle and aren’t worth much,” stated U.S. PIRG Education Fund President Faye Park. Now that Asia isn’t buying our waste plastic, “we have to deal with it ourselves,” she writes, adding that “plastic is choking our recycling system as effectively as it chokes ocean life.”

Several plastic types are actually easy to recycle, and all plastics are valuable. Lumping all plastics into this single statement doesn’t do justice to the fact that plastics can perform functions far beyond the original intended purpose.

In the introduction to the study, PIRG notes that plastic can only be re-processed a limited number of times before it degrades and the value becomes so low that it is land-filled or incinerated. What the introduction doesn’t tell us is that recycled materials are added to virgin materials in significant enough proportions to make certain types of plastics, such as PET, a valuable commodity. Demand for rPET is quite high; in fact, it’s so high that many bottle makers who have clients needing rPET to meet recycled content goals are having a hard time getting it.

What are the pros and cons, challenges and opportunities of traditional and emerging recycling technologies? How effective are returnable packaging schemes in reducing plastic waste? Clare Goldsberry tackles these questions in "Real world solutions to the plastic waste challenge." The article can be downloaded free of charge here or by going to the Whitepapers tab on the PlasticsToday home page.

The PIRG study says the United States has failed to curb the rise of plastic and that it has “failed to build domestic demand for recycled material and failed to ensure that product designers consider the end of life of their products.” Given the fact that consumer products companies are using plastic because it is the best “fit-for-purpose” material available, as well as the most energy efficient to produce and process, it is only natural that demand for plastics has risen. Alternatives, including aluminum, glass and paper, just don’t cut it when one considers the entire life-cycle—production from raw materials to shipping and through to consumer use and recycling.

It’s true that China’s National Sword policy created a huge obstacle for U.S recycling programs, as the study points out. However, it’s also an opportunity for the plastics industry to educate consumers in how and what to recycle. Recyclers need clean recyclable materials. Dirty plastic materials were a problem for China’s recyclers; now they’re a problem for U.S. recyclers.

PIRG’s study notes that currently “most product designers are under no obligation to consider how their products will be disposed of at the end of their useful life,” leading to “unrecyclable products.” I believe that is less true today than it was a decade ago. Most brand owners and consumer goods producers are very aware of package design-for-recyclability.

It is true, as the study points out, that some flexible drink packaging combines “plastic and metal” and “the two materials are too difficult to separate to be recycled.” Foil-lined flexible pouches are more difficult to recycle, but advances are being made in that direction. “Other products, like compostable plastic containers, may be technically recyclable or compostable, but are often incompatible with most recycling and composting programs.”

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