As Recycling Declines, Brand Commitments to Increase Recycled Content Are Tough to Meet

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by | Jun 18, 2021

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The recycling of bottles, non-bottle rigid plastic and film declined by 27 million pounds in 2019 or 0.5% — and though North American recyclers continue to recycle the majority of the post-consumer plastic recovered, declines in mature recycling streams make brand company commitments to increase recycled content more challenging, according to a new report.

In order for brands to be able to procure quality feedstock at lower environmental and economic costs, collection of quality material is essential for recyclers, says Steve Alexander, president and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR). The report, based on the results of a 2019 survey sponsored by the APR, the Foundation for Plastic Recycling, and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), found that recycling of plastics in North America has risen approximately 8% since 2017, though recycling of bottles, non-bottle rigid plastic and film declined.

And declines in recycling rates are a sign that the system needs support, Alexander says. “Our modes of commerce and consumption are changing and our system of recovering sources must change too.” 

Compared to 2018, the largest increase in recycling in 2019 was among non-bottle rigid plastics (45.9 million pounds) and the largest drop in recycling was in PET bottles (39.3 million pounds). Although film plastic overall declined, there was an increase in film recovered for recycling from retail and agricultural sources. Plastic bottles continued to make up the majority of the plastic recovered for recycling at 55.2%, with non-bottle rigids accounting for 25.3%, film 19.2%, and other plastic, excluding foam, making up the remainder at 0.3%.

Most of the material recovered for recycling in the United States in 2019 was purchased by reclaimers in the United States or Canada (87.9% combined) with just 12.1% exported overseas. Within the 12.1% of exports, bottle exports rose slightly by 26 million pounds; non-bottle rigid exports stayed flat; and post-consumer film exports dipped by 28.5 million pounds.

This month, three leading plastics and material science companies – Dow, LyondellBasell and NOVA Chemicals – established the Closed Loop Circular Plastics Fund to invest in scalable recycling technologies, equipment upgrades and infrastructure solutions. The fund, managed by Closed Loop Partners, and with an initial $25 million investment, invites businesses across the plastics value chain to join in advancing the recovery and recycling of plastics in the US and Canada. 

The goal is to eventually deploy $100 million, through a combination of the fund’s founding investors, additional corporate investors and financial institutions, in order to attract additional capital beyond the fund’s own commitments. At scale, the fund’s investments aim to recycle over 500 million pounds of plastic over its lifespan.

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