Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Misperceptions of Plastic Recycling

The general public has many misperceptions of the plastics industry. A great example is this set of recent comments made in a reddit group:
"The main problems in the US for plastics is that we do not actually recycle very much of it. It is still cheaper to make new plastic than it is to recycle and all plastic is currently being "down-cycled"--a water bottle will never be a water bottle again...it will be plastic lumber or some other low risk item...plastic water bottles are always brand new plastic."
Let's look at these comments one at a time.
"The main problems in the US for plastics is that we do not actually recycle very much of it."
This is actually a worldwide problem. Recycling rates for plastics overall are about 8% although some specific materials have higher rates. Water bottles are at 40%. These rates are lower than for say, aluminum, but even aluminum cans only have a 45% recycling rate and that has been steady for decades. Plastic recycling rates are increasing as the public becomes more and more aware that plastic can be recycled. Keep in mind that it took a long time for aluminum cans to reach that 45% recycling rate. People were patient while the recycling industry became established, and they should be equally patient for the plastics recycling industry.
"It is still cheaper to make new plastic than it is to recycle..."
This is where the writer goes off the cliff. Recycled plastic is cheaper than virgin resin. Proof can be found via a quick look at the resin pricing data available at Plastics News. PET resin for instance, the plastic used to make water bottles run between 102 and 107 cents a lb. for virgin (depending on the volume) while recycled PET is between 44 and 80 cents a lb. depending on color and how much processing has occurred. Other resins will show similar trends, but in all cases, recycled resin are cheaper than virigin.
"...all plastic is currently being "down-cycled"--a water bottle will never be a water bottle again...it will be plastic lumber or some other low risk item..."
I do not understand this comment at all. While "down-cycled" is a very popular term, there is no consistent definition of what it actually means. What determines whether a process is up-cycling or down-cycling? One of the most common knocks against PET water bottles is that they are disposable, but then if this disposable product is turned into something durable such as clothing (not lumber - there is no PET-based lumber), this is suddenly considered going "down" and a bad thing? And lets look at the idea of risk. If a lumber board on a deck fails, the manufacturer is at risk for replacement of the board (or possibly the whole deck), as well as the health of the person who was standing on the board when it collapsed. That is a far greater risk than a water bottle manufacturer will ever face.

And lastly, there was this ignorant statement:
"...plastic water bottles are always brand new plastic"
That is hardly the case. Arrowhead Water and Evian both have water bottles made from 50% recycled materials and others are on the way.

Is the plastics recycling industry as effective as it could be? Or should be? No, but recycling of too many other non-plastic materials are far less than 100%. Effective recycling requires that consumers participate by keeping materials from the general trash, that businesses or governments are able to collect the recyclables, that recycling businesses exist that can processes the materials and that there are markets for the recycled materials. All four of these components exist to some extent, but there is still plenty of growth required to reach the target of 100% recycling.

We'll get there. I'm old enough to remember when aluminum cans first came out, so there obviously was no recycling of them initially. The same is true with plastics. We'll get there, we'll get there.

2 comments:

Plastic prototyping said...

A very interesting and informative post. Thanks for the share!

Unknown said...

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