Plastic bottle recycling rate declines by 2.4 percent in 2016

Plastic bottle recycling rate declines by 2.4 percent in 2016

Contributing factors included a slight drop in material collected for recycling, changing export markets and increased contamination of recyclables.

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November 7, 2017
Recycling Today Staff
Municipal / IC&I Plastics

Plastic bottle recycling in the U.S. declined by 2.4 percent to slightly more than 2.9 billion pounds, according to figures released by the Washington-based Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), also based in Washington. The “27th Annual National Postconsumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report,” conducted for the organizations by More Recycling, formerly Moore Recycling Associates Inc., Sonoma, California, indicates the 2016 overall recycling rate for plastic bottles was 29.7 percent, down from 31.1 percent in 2015.

The five-year compounded annual growth rate for plastic bottle recycling was 2.1 percent, according to the report, which also notes that the total for all bottles in the marketplace increased by 202 million pounds, or 2.1 percent. The study notes that PET bottles accounted for almost all the growth in bottles on store shelves and that 2016 was a positive year for total bottle usage, with a small per capita increase.

Following more than 20 consecutive years of growth, factors that contributed to the recent decline in plastic bottle recycling included a slight drop in material collected for recycling, changing export markets and increased contamination, according to the survey. Additionally, growth in the use of plastic bottles in packaging was offset by continuing progress in lightweighting and increased use of concentrates with smaller, lighter bottles.

In 2016, polyethylene terephthalate (PET, No. 1) recycling decreased by 44 million pounds. The collection of high density polyethylene (HDPE, No. 2) bottles, which includes bottles for milk, household cleaners and detergents, fell by 31.7 million pounds (2.8 percent) to slightly more than 1.1 billion pounds for the year, the study notes. The recycling rate for HDPE bottles slipped from 34.4 percent to 33.4 percent.

According to the study, exports of HDPE bottles rose nearly 5 percent from 184 million pounds in 2015 to 193 pounds (or 16.4 percent of total HDPE bottles collected) in 2016, while the amount of HDPE processed in the U.S. fell by 37 million pounds (or nearly 4 percent) to slightly less than 993 million pounds.

“Some U.S. recyclers are seeing these short-term challenges as opportunities to innovate and invest in our plastics recycling infrastructure,” says Steve Alexander, APR president. “The key to continued growth lies in improving our sorting and collection technologies to deliver consistent, high-quality yields that strengthen our global competitiveness.”

“Plastics recycling has a track record of long-term growth spanning 25 years,” says Steve Russell, ACC vice president of plastics. “Postuse plastics are valuable materials that have weathered many cycles and different growth factors. From resin suppliers to recyclers to brand owners, the plastics value chain is working together to continue to create new opportunities and long-term solutions.”

The survey found the collection of polypropylene (PP, No. 5) bottles rose nearly 15.3 percent to reach 36.6 million pounds in 2016, with the PP collection rate increasing to more than 20 percent. (PP caps, closures and nonbottle containers are widely collected for recycling in the United States, and these data are presented in a separate report on recycling nonbottle rigid plastics, which will be released in the coming months.)

Together, PET and HDPE bottles make up 97.1 percent of the U.S. market for plastic bottles, with PP comprising 1.8 percent, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) 0.7 percent and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) 0.3 percent, the study notes. 

Data on PET bottle recycling referenced in the report were separately funded and published by APR and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), Florence, Kentucky. A separate report, “Report on PET Container Recycling Activity in 2016,” is available at www.plasticsrecycling.org/images/pdf/resources/reports/NAPCOR-APR_2016RateReport_FINAL.pdf