JUNE 2010


Steve Russell

Recycling plastic in its various forms not only reduces America’s dependence on energy sources, but when recycling is done right, makes the nation’s industries that rely on plastic feedstock more efficient and profitable in a competitive world.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), Plastics Division, continues to be an active player in pushing for more efficient use of plastics and for recycling this material, from collection, processing and reuse.

Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the ACC, recently granted an interview to American Recycler to discuss the latest in plastics recycling and reuse.

How has the current economic downturn affected plastics recycling?

Russell: It is true the economic downturn has significantly impacted key markets for plastics. However, at the same time, recycling rates for many plastics have made impressive gains. Even though nationwide the recycling rate for all materials combined dropped 2.7 percent in 2008, plastics recycling achieved increases. The total amount of bottles recycled grew from 2.3 to 2.4 billion pounds, and the recycling rate rose to 27 percent, a 3.2 percent increase for the year. Similarly, the recycling of plastic bags and film grew to over 832 million pounds, and the recycling rate for this material climbed to 13 percent, doubling in just 3 years. And the recycling of rigid plastic containers grew almost 11 percent in a single year to reach 361 million pounds.

Has there been any new research in sorting technologies?

Russell: Yes. In fact, ACC sponsored a newly released study, “Demingling the Mix: An Assessment of Commercially Available Automated Sorting Technology” (4R Sustainability, April, 2010). According to the study, as of 2008 about 120 of the 570 material recovery facilities in the United States were receiving single-stream material. As a result, the technology offerings for sorting equipment have increased significantly in recent years, particularly for flake. The study examined 52 systems: 25 for sorting whole plastic containers and 27 for handling flake.

What are some of the things driving increases in rigid plastic recycling?

Russell: Rigid container recycling is one of the fastest growing areas in plastics recycling. Currently, 62 percent of California’s communities recycle rigid containers and nearly 30 percent of the nation’s largest cities recycle them. The New York City Council is poised to pass legislation that would significantly expand the recycling of rigid containers in the city and indirectly help to increase the recycling of other plastics. If this legislation passes, New York City would add important momentum to strong recent growth in recycling rigid plastic containers. ACC testified in support of this legislation, and we hope it will serve as a model for cities and towns around the country. In addition, the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers (APR) has formed a rigid plastics recycling program of which ACC is an active member.

How has the recycling of plastic bags and film continued to evolve?

Russell: We believe that the strong and continuing growth we’re seeing with plastic bags and film is due in large part to increases in access and education. According to Moore Recycling Associates, the firm that conducts our annual survey on recycling plastic bags and film, there are currently more than 15,000 drop-off locations for bags and film in the United States, most of them at major grocery stores and retailers. In addition, some communities are starting to collect bags and film curbside, though we’ve heard from recyclers that at-store programs tend to yield cleaner, more desirable material. We’ve also seen an increase in education and outreach programs at the community level. To name a few examples, King County, Washington; Lake County, Illinois; Philadelphia and the State of Florida have all launched programs to help increase awareness of programs to recycle plastic bags and wraps. Other efforts are underway in Minnesota, Iowa and Arizona.

Do single-stream municipal recycling programs help or hinder the collection of plastic recyclables?

Russell: One of the things we’ve learned through the “All Plastic Bottles” program is that when we simplify what can go into the bin, the amount of recyclable material that gets collected goes up. Single-stream recycling offers tremendous potential in this regard. And in localities that have energy recovery facilities, there’s no wastage factor. Materials are sorted at a MRF, and plastics that can’t be recycled are converted into energy to power homes, buildings or municipal facilities. Even in areas without energy recovery, there is evidence that more plastics can be recovered through single-stream collection programs. It’s documented that areas with energy recovery programs have higher recycling rates, so the two solutions work hand-and-hand.

Are there examples of business and government working together to raise awareness of the importance of plastics recycling?

Russell: ACC’s Plastics Division has been working with officials in the State of California to do just that. Since late 2007, we’ve partnered with the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Keep California Beautiful to place nearly 700 recycling bins and instructional signage on beaches in 19 coastal communities. We’ve also partnered with LA’s BEST, a non-profit afterschool program to increase plastics recycling know-how among 15,000 students in the Los Angeles area. This year, we’re working with the California Department of Transportation to place recycling bins at heavily trafficked rest stops.

We hear a lot about inefficiencies in the recycling value chain. Does recycling actually help the environment?

Russell: Together with the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, the National Association for PET Container Resources and the PET Resin Association, ACC’s Plastics Division recently helped sponsor a study that confirms that recycling plastics, specifically PET and HDPE, results in significant savings in energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
Combined with data from EPA, the study confirms that the generation of cleaned recycled resin requires 71 trillion Btu less than the amount of energy that would be required to produce the equivalent tonnage of virgin PET and HDPE resin. In other words, the amount of energy saved in 2008 by recycling PET and HDPE containers (including bottles) was the equivalent of the annual energy use of 750,000 homes.