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For recyclers, one (complicated) word: Plastics

Although Americans rely on plastic made from petroleum and natural gas in virtually every aspect of our lives, just a fraction of our plastic waste is getting recycled.
Image:  A forklift operator stacks bales of sorted recyclable materials.
A forklift operator stacks bales of sorted recyclable materials. The Ocean County Recycling Center, operated by WM Recycle America separates co-mingled materials from undesirable refuse and bales the resulting milk jugs, soda and water bottles, detergent containers, and aluminum.John Makely /

Just as America is addicted to oil, it's positively hooked on plastic.

Americans rely on plastic made from crude oil and natural gas in virtually every aspect of our lives — from soda bottles to car parts to toys. And yet even as the Gulf Coast oil disaster is causing more Americans to rethink their dependency on petroleum, we're doing a poor job of reusing the plastic we already have.

Only 7.1 percent of our plastic waste was recycled in 2008, according to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

By weight, that means that out of 30.05 million tons of plastic waste generated that year, nearly 28 million tons ended up in the trash heap. That's the equivalent of 366,000 Boeing 737s, according to calculations by Waste Management.

The recycling rate for plastic goods is far lower than many other common household items, such as cardboard or aluminum, and it’s also significantly less than the overall waste recovery rate. In 2008, 33.2 percent of all waste generated was recycled or composted, according to the EPA.

Why are we so bad at recycling plastics?

Many Americans simply don’t have a convenient way do it. About 40 percent of the U.S. population has no access to curbside recycling programs, according to the EPA, and even among those with curbside recycling not all programs accept all types of plastics.

And the very qualities that make plastic so popular — it is light, durable and portable — also mean that it is often used on the go, where it is all too easy to just toss the items in the trash.

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“The material’s there. It’s just not being routed into recycling. It’s being routed into landfill,” said Keefe Harrison, director of communications for the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers, a trade group.

The countless varieties of plastics out there also can cause complications for recyclers and confusion for consumers who want to recycle. Unlike cardboard or aluminum cans, which generally get lumped together for recycling purposes, plastic detergent jugs, water bottles and yogurt containers may need to be sorted and processed separately.

Many plastic items also contain paint, metal or other components that can be difficult to cost-effectively remove for recycling.

“We have to design plastics with recycling in mind,” said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has worked for years to get companies and government groups to step up plastic recycling efforts in order to reduce dependence on oil and natural gas.

Hope for the future
Despite these roadblocks, many in the industry say they are seeing a growing awareness of the economic and environmental value of recycling plastic.

“It’s becoming part of our culture,” said Carl Rush, a senior vice president for organic growth with the refuse hauler Waste Management, which is placing a major focus on plastic recycling as a way to expand its business. “As I tell folks around here, if you don’t believe this, just talk to your kids.”

Improvements have been slow so far. From 2000 to 2008, the recycling rate for plastic inched up from 5.8 percent to 7.1 percent, while the overall waste recycling and composting rate increased from 29 percent to 33.2 percent.

Meanwhile, many expect plastic use to increase. At Waste Management, executives say they have noticed significantly more plastic containers, and fewer glass ones, showing up in the waste stream.

Not all plastic recycled equally
Experts say there is a relatively robust market for recycled plastic resin made from things like soda bottles and detergent or milk jugs, typically numbered 1 and 2, which are recycled at a much higher rate than other plastic items. That type of recycled resin can be reborn as new plastic bottles, carpet fiber, fleece jackets and outdoor decking.

The far thornier problem is what to do with the type of plastics found in things such as medicine bottles, toys and butter tubs, which are typically numbered 3 through 7. These plastics can be more difficult to sort, and the relatively small volumes can makes it hard to compete in price against new plastic.

“There are so many different types, and so much of it really can’t be recovered because either volumes aren’t sufficient or it really doesn’t have a lot of value in terms of the marketplace,” said Rush, of Waste Management.

His company has been trying to encourage companies to focus more on the types of plastic used for soda bottles and jugs in the hope that coalescing around a smaller group of plastics will make the plastic recycling market more efficient.

Improving recycling operations
Meanwhile, some recycling haulers are working to make recycling easier for consumers. Instead of asking people to look at the number on a plastic item to determine whether or where to recycle it, many now offer guidance based on the item itself, such as bags or bottles. Others have moved to a “single-stream” model where consumers can lump all their recycling together and leave the sorting to the hauling company.

There are also moves to put plastic recycling drop boxes in more convenient locations, such as in sports arenas, and to expand the types of plastics drop-off locations will accept. For example, some grocery stores now will accept grocery, dry cleaning and newspaper bags in their bins.

Some consumer companies also have gotten more involved in plastic recycling in recent years. Beverage giant Coca-Cola has invested in bottle-to-bottle recycling facilities and recently won industry accolades for a recyclable bottle that is partly made from plant-based materials. Nestle, whose brands include Arrowhead and Poland Spring, recently introduced bottles made with 25 percent recycled plastic. Some smaller-scale manufacturers are also starting to recycle more of their own product for reuse.

Others are focused more heavily on reducing the amount of oil-based plastic. Hershkowitz, of the NRDC, said he is seeing big companies finding ways to use less plastic in each container, and also is starting to notice a bigger push toward plastics made out of something other than petroleum or natural gas, such as plants.

“The move on plastics is to get out of petroleum,” he said.

While such efforts help, he thinks consumer products companies should be required to help pay for the collection of the plastics they produce.

Bias toward new plastic
Despite the recycling industry’s efforts, it’s still difficult to compete against low cost and readily available new plastic resin, of which the U.S. is a major producer and a net exporter. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 4.6 percent of total U.S. petroleum consumption, or 331 million barrels of liquid petroleum gases and natural gas liquids, was used to manufacture plastic resin in 2006, the latest data available.

“Many manufacturers still like using virgin,” said Jonathan Levy, director of state and local programs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group that includes about 230 members who handle plastics.

In some cases, he said, recycled resin can be less appealing because it is discolored or not as clean as new resin. For example, he said it may work very well on a plastic part that is inside a car door, but a manufacturer may still choose to use virgin resin for a part the consumer will see.

Long-term view
Levy sees a similarity between the state of plastic recycling now and the state of rubber tire recycling 25 years ago, when piles of used tires were strewn throughout the country and there seemed little use for them. These days, he said, improvements in recycling technology have made it cost-effective to reuse a large chunk of those tires for everything from landscape mulch to rubberized asphalt. The recovery rate for rubber tires was 35.4 percent in 2008, up from 12.2 percent in 1990, according to the EPA.

“It is expanding and it is increasing, but I would think that we might have to take a long-term view on this,” Levy said of plastics recycling.

But Hershkowitz, of the NRDC, notes that plastic recycling may be more challenging than something like tires, because plastic bags, containers and toys can be both smaller and more ubiquitous.

He also notes that environmental advocates have been pushing major corporations to get more serious about plastic recycling for decades.

“They’ve had their 25 years,” he said.