- Plastic bottle recycling in the United States dipped 3.6% in 2017 to 2.8 billion pounds, according to the National Postconsumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report from the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC). The overall 2017 plastic bottle recycling rate was 29.3% — a slight decrease from 29.7% in 2016.
- The total number of PET bottles collected in 2017 decreased by 27 million pounds, and HDPE decreased by 70.3 million pounds. Recycling rates for PET and HDPE were 29.2% and 31.1%, respectively. Exports of HDPE fell nearly 28%.
- The report notes that changing export markets contributed to the dip, as did manufacturers making lighter weight products and turning to smaller-sized bottles.
The report places a heavy focus on PET and HDPE — these two resins make up approximately 97% of the U.S. market for plastic bottles. While it also includes some data for PP, the sector comprises less than 2% of the market.
Despite all the recycling industry buzz, shifting market conditions weren't the only factor cited for the decrease in bottle collection — lightweighting, as well as changing container shapes and volumes, play an important role. The practice results in less weight for the same number of bottles collected, which adversely affects recycling economics. In addition, it causes more bottles to end up in the post-consumer paper stream, as they don't have the heft for machinery to properly handle them during the sortation process.
The report says residential single-stream collection participation has continued to increase — and while this is a positive development as far as recovered material numbers, it can also contribute to higher contamination rates.
The dip in recovered PET bottles is slightly concerning because that sector commonly is viewed as a bright spot, even while other plastics face difficult markets — consumers are well educated about recycling used PET bottles compared with other items. But the recycling market changes and alterations to curbside recycling programs could present further problems for PET. As programs across the U.S. continue to remove items from their collection list, confusion among consumers may lead to decreases in the recovery of traditionally highly-recycled materials.
Despite the decreases noted in the report, some experts remain optimistic about the state of plastic bottle recycling. “Plastic bottle recycling is proving to be resilient in the face of short-term challenges,” said APR President Steve Alexander in a statement.
New recycling opportunities also continue to present themselves as packaging evolves — the report, for instance, notes that PET thermoforms present a largely untapped area of opportunity for processors.