Comment: Despite what you’re hearing, plastic recycling works

Recycling needs more investment and regulation, but plastics are being turned into new products.

By Adam Minter / Bloomberg Opinion

Last week, LaMar Detert walked me through Discover Plastics, his 48-year-old plastic recycling company in Rogers, Minn. I was there because I wanted to double-check that it exists.

A few days earlier the Atlantic had run a viral article titled “Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work.” It wasn’t the first to make that claim, either. Over the last half-decade, as concerns over ocean plastic pollution have gone mainstream, plastic recycling has become an object of ire, labeled everything from a “myth” to an outright “lie.”

Detert assured me that his company “definitely exists,” and that its business model is neither a myth nor a lie. It’s true: Discover Plastics is housed in a 50,000-square-foot warehouse, where it handled roughly 30 million pounds of plastics in 2021.

It’s not alone, either. According to data provided by the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the United States is home to at least 180 reprocessors, as they’re known, who recycle billions of pounds of material every year. Thanks to growing demand by consumers, companies and governments for solutions to plastic pollution, their volumes and positive environmental impact are poised to grow substantially over the next decade.

Plastic recycling has existed ever since plastic’s inventors realized that — under the right circumstances — it could be remelted and reformed. As industrial use of plastics took off in the 1950s, so too did businesses devoted to using unwanted plastics generated during the recycling process.

During my tour of Discover Plastics, Detert reached into a large box of oval lids intended to seal sanitizing-wipe containers. When the lids failed to meet manufacturer specifications, they were shipped to his company, where they’re reprocessed into a form acceptable for sale to manufacturers.

“We’re the local 7-Eleven for plastic molders, mostly focused on mom and pop manufacturers,” Detert said. In some cases, the company has an informal “closed loop” system with its customers, whereby it takes back industrial castoffs, reprocesses them and sends them back for reuse.

Cases like these rarely receive much attention, but they make a difference. For example, the wipe lids will be reprocessed and sold to a manufacturer of flowerpots that would otherwise use virgin plastic. “Either way, those are going to be plastic flowerpots,” Detert said with a shrug. “This way, they’re recycled.”

Recycling of consumer plastics such as water bottles, yogurt cups and detergent jugs also began in the 1970s, and grew rapidly with the development of government-run municipal programs. Generally, it’s more difficult to recycle what’s left in a household bin than what a manufacturer deposits in a box bound for an industrial recycler.

Yogurt cups are tossed while still coated with yogurt and sometimes a foil top attached; other products comprise multiple plastic types incompatible for recycling purposes. For example, a water bottle and its cap are typically made of two different plastics that must be separated before recycling.

As the numbers of plastics multiply, whether in a single product or in the overall waste stream, the cost of separation and recycling increases, too. For recyclers, those spiraling costs serve as powerful disincentive to recycle.

However, those disincentives aren’t the final word. In 2020, recyclers collected 27.1 percent of the bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET (commonly used for water and other beverage containers), and 28.8 percent of the high density polyethylene bottles, or HDPE (often identified as laundry detergent bottles), used in the U.S. Those rates were down 1.2 percent and 2.1 percent compared with 2019 because of several factors, including covid-related disruptions to curbside recycling and to supply chains.

But even as the collections declined, manufacturer demand grew for the 4.8 billion pounds of post-consumer plastics gathered in the U.S. and globally. That growth is partly a result of the commitment of more than 80 major packaging, consumer-goods and retailing companies globally to boost recycled content by 15 percent to 50 percent in their packaging.

In part, it’s also a function of government mandates, such as California’s requirement that plastic bottles have at least 15 percent recycled content in 2022 (rising to 50 percent by 2030). It’s also a consequence of high prices for oil and virgin plastic: Manufacturers have been forced to take a second look at recycled plastics. “It’s really opened their eyes,” LaMar Detert said.

The increased demand has affected the cost. For example, the price of recycled PET jumped 103 percent between January 2020 and 2021 as consumer packaging brands competed for the suddenly scarce material.

The crunch is poised to continue: The U.S. will need an additional 80 recycling plants to meet the 2025 California mandate, according to one recent forecast. Another analysis predicts that global demand for recycled plastics will reach $45 billion by 2025, up 30 percent from 2020.

The good news is that there is enough plant capacity to bring the U.S. recycling rate for PET and HDPE to over 40 percent; if the plastic can be collected. That’ll require investing in recycling programs for municipalities that don’t have them, additional infrastructure (like trucks and bins) for those that do, public education and bottle-deposit efforts.

It’ll also mean pushing back against disinformation claiming that plastic recycling is a lie or a myth or doesn’t work. In time, a coordinated effort can have a big impact: In Norway 97 prcent of PET is collected for recycling.

Of course, recycling alone won’t solve the oceans’ plastic crisis, or entirely stem the flow of plastics to landfills and incinerators. That’ll require eliminating single-use and other unsustainable plastics when possible, in favor of material reductions or more sustainable solutions.

Fortunately, brands, retailers, entire trade associations and even venture capital firms have refocused their considerable resources on accomplishing those goals. Some of these new packaging materials, methods and technologies are already in the marketplace, while others are set to go online in coming years.

Collectively, they highlight an indisputable reality. Plastic recycling is working, and in coming years it’ll play an important role in boosting a more sustainable economy and planet. And that’s no myth.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”

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