JUNE 2009


Plastic recycling maximized

Steve Russell

The use and recycling of plastic products and packaging is a key issue for environmentalists and consumers, with the plastic water bottle being the 'poster boy' for the need to recycle and reduce the use of plastic.

American Recycler recently spoke with Steve Russell, managing director of the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) Plastics Division, to learn more about what is being done to maximize the recycling of plastic and promote the domestic recycling infrastructure.

As a result of the current economic downturn, has the decrease in demand for plastic recyclables affected the collection of plastics from curbside and businesses?

Russell: Collection rates generally are driven by recycling behaviors rather than pricing. Collection success is often the result of well-managed programs and consumer education. For that reason, we believe that collection programs that have been successful to date will continue to weather the current economic downturn.

Should governments provide tax incentives and credits to manufacturers that use plastic recyclables as a feedstock in order to promote the collection and use of plastic? Are domestic manufacturers maximizing their use of plastic recyclables?

Russell: Interesting questions, but notwithstanding the current recession, the demand for recycled plastics in this country generally has outpaced supply. For the long term, we believe the best approaches are those that encourage increased collection through consumer education, and which promote consistent consumer education and collection practices across communities.

That is not to say that there aren’t opportunities to take advantage of federal policies – the recent economic stimulus package includes upwards of $3.2 billion in funding that could be used by communities to expand recycling infrastructure, including for plastics. This is a unique opportunity with a very short timeframe.

To what extent has the weight of plastic packaging been reduced? What additional gains can be attained and is industry motivated to reduce the amount of plastic being used?

Russell: Plastics have made huge strides in lightweighting and packaging reduction design. Since the 1970s, the weight of the average 1 liter beverage bottle and 1 gallon milk jug has declined by 30 percent.

But many companies are announcing even greater weight reductions. Poland Springs introduced the new “eco-shape bottle,” which according to the company, “is made with 30 percent less plastic”. Similar announcements have been made recently by Dasani, Aquafina, Pepsi and Coca Cola.

What is the ACC doing to help governments educate the various stakeholders to recycle and what can be done in terms of installing infrastructure to collect plastics in more public areas?

Russell: ACC is sponsoring some innovative pilot programs to help promote recycling and to keep valuable plastic material from being wasted, or worse, ending up as litter.

Last year, we placed more than 500 recycling bins and educational signage on highly trafficked beaches from Monterey to San Diego, and this year, we’re expanding our efforts to include rest stops along coastal highways. American Recycler readers can learn more at www.2valuable2waste.com.

In addition, ACC has been promoting the recycling of plastic bags and film through a complete online toolkit available through the website, www.plasticbagrecycling.org, which offers signage suggestions for retail recycling programs and information for consumers on the many types of bags and wraps that can be recycled together.

In the area of non-bottle household containers, we’re working to develop approaches and language to best reach consumers, and we are working with community programs to expand collection. We also support programs to help educate young people about the importance of recycling.

Are enough people aware of the connection between the manufacturing of plastic products and the use of natural gas as a feedstock to manufacture plastics?

Russell: We’re glad you asked. I can’t tell you how often we read about plastics and oil consumption, when in the United States, plastics are made primarily (70 percent) from domestic natural gas. That said, we all share an obligation to use energy responsibly, including by pitching in and recycling. When we recycle, the energy used to make a plastic product can be repurposed for new products or, where waste-to-energy facilities are in operation, used to heat homes.

It is important to recognize that through lightweighting automobiles, reducing packaging and efficient insulation, plastics actually save much more energy than they consume. In fact, studies show that the use of plastics reduces energy consumption by 26 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 56 percent compared to alternative materials. We welcome the Obama administration’s focus on energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emission reductions. Plastics play a critical role in meeting these goals.

What are some of the major barriers to plastics recycling today?

Russell: Two of the major themes to emerge from our recent recycling blog summit are the need for more consistent recycling approaches from community to community and the need to make it easier for consumers to know what to recycle.

Both of these barriers largely boil down to a need for more consistent infrastructure and collection and education practices. Studies have shown that consumer participation rates tend to increase when we make things simple. For example, offering single-stream recycling and accepting “all bottles” in collection programs as opposed to collecting by the number has led to measurable increases.