June 22, 2023 / minute read
Finding New Routes to More Plastics Recycling
Written by Kristen Rinehart, Vice President and General Manager of Recycling
Demand for recycled plastic continues to increase across businesses and manufacturers, particularly for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), or plastic numbers 1, 2 and 5. As I’ve mentioned here before, plastic recycling is absolutely critical to our business success –– we aim to use 1 billion pounds of recycled plastic annually by 2032. There is a massive need even beyond ADS, and despite that demand, recycling rates in the United States remain stagnant and frankly, absurdly low. After reaching a nearly 10% rate in 2014, the Washington Post reported recent plastic recycling rates have dipped to about 5%.
However, there is reason to be hopeful that we can rebound and continue to get more and more plastic out of the waste stream and into long-lasting products such as the stormwater pipes and chambers we manufacture at ADS. For one thing, we have great success: 91% of the plastic that makes it into the recycling stream is turned into plastic products. For another, because many of the plastics picked up at the consumer curb –– detergent bottles, lids, milk jugs –– are fairly easily sorted, Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) such as Rumpke and WM can get those recycled plastics to companies like ADS. And finally, those MRFs are typically underutilized with excess capacity to handle a lot more material, particularly as they continue to make technological improvements to their sorting processes.
Therefore, if we have capacity, and we’re doing a good job of recycling the plastics we do get, I believe there are some potential solutions that aren’t overly complicated and can help boost recycling rates and increase sources of recycled plastic:
- Plastic packaging design for recyclability: Packaging can be designed for ease of recycling. The Association of Plastic Recyclers, for instance, has packaging design guidelines that companies can follow to make recycling plastic packaging easier. And as my colleague Brian King pointed out recently, ADS is also in favor of sensible extended producer responsibility (EPR), which are government policies that incentivize the use of recycled materials in products and packaging.
- Incentivize consumer participation: Where recycling already exists, let’s implement a carrot or stick approach to encourage recycling and higher quality recycling (no mixing plastic bags, batteries or other contaminants into the recycling bin). Some MRFs are already running limited trials that utilize tech to analyze a household’s recycling accuracy and reward households based on good performance. Municipality or government adoption is one option for making this practice more widespread.
- Consumer education: With so many different types of plastics, and some 355 MRFs with differing capabilities across communities, it’s tough for the everyday consumer to keep straight what can go in the recycling bin, and what goes to waste. In central Ohio, SWACO, which owns and manages the largest landfill in the region, uses its Recycle Right campaign to reach households directly with clear guidelines, and has helped lead to a 51% overall recycling rate in Franklin County, well above the national average. And the city of Columbus just began its weekly recycling program, which should improve rates. I also read recently that some 300 locations, mainly entertainment venues and businesses, are utilizing a visual artificial intelligence program called Oscar Sort to tell users where to put their empty bottles, plates and other materials. It’s another way to lower the barrier to recycling.
- Efficient diversion of complex plastics: Some plastics, such as PVC, nylon, polycarbonate and others, are too complex to be easily processed and recycled by MRFs. These materials may require chemical recycling in order to be re-used and are not easily collected. However, since these are often industrial materials, there is an opportunity to create a fast-track and separate recycling system to gather and prepare these materials for chemical recycling more efficiently.
Bottom line: The U.S. has a stable, high-demand market for easy-to-recycle plastics, the capacity at MRFs, and infrastructure in place at most locations to handle more plastics. It will take a combination of incentives, consumer and corporate education, and policies to boost our recycling rates to not only meet demand but help mitigate environmental degradation. And it’s not as complicated as so many think.
If you’re interested in learning more about ADS recycling, or how you can partner with us to recycle even more plastic, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.