Sponsored By

Public mistrust, an obsolete belief that plastic waste can be exported, and a general misunderstanding of the recycling process are roadblocks on the path to a circular economy.

Bruce Adams

April 19, 2023

6 Min Read
plastic waste for recycling
Derek Berwin/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Following a massive fire at a plastics recycling facility in Richmond, IN, last week and with Earth Day coming up on April 22, plastic recycling — for better or worse — is once again making national headlines. While advocates of plastic recycling view it as an important step toward developing a circular economy, others oppose it for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons are based on three common misconceptions, according to Emily Friedman, Recycled Plastics Senior Editor at ICIS, a leading energy and commodities market intelligence provider.

First, there is mistrust of the recycling system as a whole, and as it applies to plastics, Friedman told PlasticsToday. “The misconception continues, even though we have made great strides in our domestic recycling infrastructure and market, so that we are able to collect the right types of plastic and process those into circular products.”

The Chinese connection

This mistrust has historical roots, she said. For many years, the United States exported a lot of its plastic waste overseas, primarily to China. But in 2017, China made it much more difficult to do that, so that market shut down virtually overnight for a lot of recycled plastics commodities.

“As a result, a lot of these recyclers, or material recovery facilities, had to landfill plastics that they could not sell in the domestic market or in other overseas markets,” Friedman told PlasticsToday.

While current recycling methods offer an alternative to landfilling, “there is still that misconception from the 2017 event that we are shipping our plastic waste overseas or landfilling our plastic waste, even if the consumer puts it in the recycling bin,” said Friedman. “The biggest hurdle is getting consumers to trust that our recycled plastics system is not what it was five or six years ago when we underwent that large market change.”

Part of that effort is reminding consumers that, while recycling is a service that in most cases is provided free to individual households, it is a market that’s constantly battling economic factors. Does it cost more to landfill, for example, or to sort the recycled plastics and sell them on the open market?

The business of plastics recycling

“Recycling doesn’t just happen because we want it to happen,” Friedman told PlasticsToday. “It is a business, as well. Sometimes there are going to be economic decisions made where it is not economically incentivized to sell that plastic back into the circular market. It will be incentivized to go to landfill.”

A third misconception is that all plastics can be recycled. “This is more about educating consumers so they can help us make a better system,” explained Friedman. “Technically, many plastics are recyclable. But very few plastic items can be handled by today’s collection and recycling infrastructure. We need to try to make sure that consumers know what to put in curbside bins for the health of the recycling system. Items put in bins that cannot be recycled cause contamination. It slows down the process. People think they are helping and have good intentions, but it makes the quality worse.”

Economic value of plastic waste

The fact that the United States was able to ship its plastic waste to alternate markets in Asia Pacific, including China, for many years created an understanding and acceptance of that process in the United States. However, people incorrectly believe that is still happening.

“The United States does have a robust plastic scrap trade, but mostly with Canada and Mexico, not globally,” said Friedman. “There has been a 79% decrease in volume of US plastic waste exports, comparing 2022 to 2015 exports.” That is a result of fewer and fewer markets that will accept plastic waste.

Plastic waste going to landfills can be attributed to force of habit and a misunderstanding of secondary material markets. “The plastic waste has to have economic value and be driven by economic forces,” said Friedman. “There is no magic recycling fairy who pays for everything.” If recycling plastic is not economically viable, a landfill is the most likely destination. (Waste incineration facilities that convert plastics to energy are more popular overseas than in the United States.)

Trade associations and industry groups have been fighting these misconceptions, but plastics recycling often gets tied up in the broader war on plastics.

“If people don’t want plastics to be produced or used, they have to say the recycled plastics industry doesn’t work, which isn’t the case,” said Friedman. “Recycled plastics get attacked a lot of times because we are providing a solution to plastic waste. It is not a perfect solution. We have far to go as an industry. But there are successful businesses that are contributing to the circular economy. We need to point out that narrative.”

Fighting misinformation with accurate data

“Lots of reports come out that aren’t always grounded in the best data,” Friedman added. “We have the correct, verified, accurate data to refute these reports. The best way to combat misinformation is with true data. I’ve seen great work from organizations like the Association of Plastics Recyclers that refute studies that don’t have solid data. They have been outspoken and are probably the flagship organization for plastics recyclers in the United States. They have taken strong stances to support the industry.

“When we refute incorrect data, we need to ask ourselves: Is this material choice the best for the environment using life cycle analysis? Not just from a waste perspective, but from an overall greenhouse gas or carbon footprint perspective. A lot of times plastic will be the material of choice, but sometimes it will not. We need to make the right decision when we review all aspects of material choices.”

Education and economic incentives can help turn the tide

Education also can help break down misconceptions. Consumers aren’t familiar with what recycling looks like after they drop plastic items in their recycling bin.

“We can provide opportunities for consumers to get a better look at what the recycling industry is,” Friedman told PlasticsToday. “Recycling isn’t just fires burning, smokestacks, and straws in turtles’ noses. It is facilities where recyclables get sorted. In mechanical recycling, it is washing and grinding and the re-extrusion process. Educational outreach can get people more familiar with what happens at a plastics recycling plant.”

But these are not sexy topics that have wide appeal.

“In this country where it is cheap to landfill, people are not economically incentivized to care what happens once plastic waste leaves their curb,” said Friedman.

Sign up for the PlasticsToday NewsFeed newsletter.

You May Also Like