June 22, 2022 / 3 minute read

Plastic Recycling has Broad Support

Written by Brian King, Executive VP, Marketing, Product Management and Sustainability

A couple weeks ago, The Atlantic published a piece arguing that plastics recycling doesn’t, and will never, work to reduce the amount of plastic in our waste stream.

I work for a company that is the largest plastic recycler in North America, turning shampoo bottles and laundry detergent jugs into pipes and chambers that manage stormwater. And while I appreciate some of the points made in that Atlantic piece — I, too, would like to see greater percentages of our country’s plastic recycled — the foundation of that piece was overly simplistic and broad.

The problem isn’t that Americans don’t want to recycle, as the authors of the Atlantic piece note. The problem is that we don’t have the right policies and systems in place to make recycling easy.

My company, Advanced Drainage Systems, last year turned nearly 650 million pounds of plastic into the pipes, basins and storm chambers that manage water in communities and infrastructure projects across the country. Our products are designed to last at least 100 years, which means plastic that would have ended up in a landfill (or in our watershed – streams, rivers, lakes and oceans) now gets a second, long life.

And, bluntly, our business needs more recycled plastic.

Recycling is one of the rare public issues on which there is broad and bipartisan support in the United States. Curbside recycling programs are underfunded and in many rural areas, nonexistent. In some places, residents must pay a fee to recycle their household recyclables. This blows my mind. There is a market for recyclables — my company is proof of that. More than 85 percent of Americans support improved recycling programs.

And there is a clear societal benefit to recycling. According to the nonprofit The Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report, if all of the 37.4 million tons of single-family recyclables were actually recycled, rather than lost to landfills, it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons and conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil. That is, according to the report, “the equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways.” Climate change is happening, as we have seen. Better and more widespread public recycling programs should be part of the solution.

We have been recycling plastic in this country since the first recycling mill opened in 1972. But we have not done a great job of providing and funding recycling programs.  

There is no nationwide recycling program. Rather, we leave this crucial part of managing our environment and market up to the 20,000 individual communities across the United States. We don’t fund this well, as curbside recycling programs often lose out to other critical programs. The Recycling Partnership reports that only 53 percent of Americans have automatic access to curbside recycling. The good news is that about 72 percent of the people who have access to recycling contribute. So, if people have access to recycling, they will recycle.

In states with bottle return programs, where people are paid for the bottles they recycle, recycling rates are high. In Michigan, for example, bottle recycling rates have historically hovered around 90 percent. What if we made it easier for people to recycle, by automatically supplying curbside recycling to every home in the nation? What if we incentivized it or paid people for it?

We know that people want to recycle. In ADS headquarters’ home region, central Ohio, a recent research report showed that 82 percent of residents believe recycling and reducing waste can help decrease the effects of climate change. We, and that is a coalition of local municipalities, governments, waste haulers, recyclers, and manufacturers just have to give people the tools to do it. More access, in more places, will capture more recycled materials.

It’s true that not enough plastic gets recycled. But the answer isn’t to cut off plastics recycling programs. The answer is to invest in them.

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