The Recycling Evolution
By Jorge Izquierdo
U.S. recycling infrastructure and commitment must rapidly evolve to avert looming plastic waste crisis
Looking at the numbers, there is no doubt that the U.S. needs to do a much better job at recycling. This is especially true for plastic waste, which at current five-percent recycling rate significantly trails recycling rates for other packaging and containers: glass (40 per cent), aluminum beverage cans (45 per cent), paper (63 per cent), steel food cans (68 per cent) and corrugated (91 per cent).
What will it take to boost the plastics’ recycling rates and achieve the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s goal of a 50 per cent recycling rate by 2030? Action is needed in many areas, but harmonization and regularization of recycling rules and programs is crucial.
To start, the U.S. needs improved data collection, because what’s not measured can’t be managed.
“Stronger data is the necessary first step toward modernizing American recycling infrastructure and strengthening U.S. community recycling programs by determining needs, providing education and access, and ultimately capturing valuable materials for the Circular Economy,” says Dylan de Thomas, vice-president of external affairs at The Recycling Partnership.
Along with more data, regularization of what can and can’t be recycled will make the process easier for consumers, thereby driving more material into recycling streams.
For example, uniform collection standards can eliminate the variability of what is collected across programs and the confusion consumers experience when one program or municipality collects a material such as polypropylene (PP) or glass and neighboring programs do not.
At the same time, clearer labeling of disposal information is important so that consumers know how and where to recycle an empty package. This also minimizes contamination, which can reduce the quality of the recyclate or even render it unusable.
Many organizations are taking action to eliminate barriers to recycling. As part of its Blueprint for America’s Recycling System action plan, the Recycling Leadership Council (RLC)—formed in 2020 by the Consumer Brands Association—calls for a national strategy on recycling and policy action, including a plan to standardize the recycling system.
“Besides the obvious benefits of a single set of rules to limit consumer confusion, a standardized system across the United States would create scale and efficiency,” explains the group’s senior director of sustainability Meghan Stasz. “With a standardized system, programs can collect more volume, which allows for more and different types of materials to be collected and processed for post-consumer recycled content, keeping recyclable waste out of landfills and waterways.”
The American Beverage Association is also undertaking efforts to spur more recycling. The goals of its Every Bottle Back program are to improve recycling infrastructure, measure the industry’s plastic footprint, make 100 per cent recyclable bottles, add recycling-promoting messaging on packaging, raise awareness and inspire action.
Similarly, the Can Manufacturers Institute is working to retrieve the 25 per cent of aluminum cans currently mis-sorted and lost at material recovery facilities. To that end, it has established a grant program to help install eddy current equipment and quality control robots that can identify and capture the cans that otherwise would be overlooked.
The recycling technology is evolving too. To maximize the yield of post-consumer recycled plastics, The Wolfson Centre for Materials Processing of Brunel University London has developed new PRISM (Plastic Packaging Recycling using Intelligent Separation) technologies, referred to as polyPRISM, which invisibly tags plastic containers for sorting into food-grade and non-food-grade streams for recycling.
In this process, coded mixtures of invisible phosphor inks are applied to labels to identify the plastic, regardless of color, as well as the contents of the container. To sort the marked containers, recyclers only need to add a low-cost UV light source to their near-infrared sorting systems, which can be programmed to read the phosphor codes.
A multi-client project called NEXTLOOPP, led by Nextek, a consultancy specializing in design and recycling of plastic materials, is developing polyPRISM technology to sort and wash PP containers to establish closed-loop recycling for food-grade PP. With separation rates exceeded 99 per cent in full-scale trials, the program’s next steps include a commercial scale test and food-grade accreditation.
It is clear that leading CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies must commit to using recycled content to develop a Circular Economy, but better sorting technologies, cutting-edge materials science, and a collaborative approach with all stakeholders is necessary to address the scale of the plastics waste issue.
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Energy is funding seven research-and-development projects to convert plastic films into more valuable materials, and to design new plastics that are more recyclable and biodegradable.
Three of those projects will be of particular interest to packagers:
- Michigan State University working to create a redesign for inherently recyclable plastics.
- University of Massachusetts — Lowell working on integrating delamination and carbonization processes for the upcycling of single-use, multi-layer plastic films.
- West Virginia University Research Corporation plans to develop process-intensified modular upcycling of plastic films to monomers by microwave catalysis.
Lastly, educating consumers can’t be forgotten. Many CPGs are already helping consumers recycle correctly by adopting the How2Recycle label, which provides information about local recycling programs. Established in 2012 by Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), the program seeks to standardize recycling labeling, divert recyclables from landfills and teach consumers about recycling.
Making a real difference in reducing plastic waste will require for commercial, governmental and academic partners to work together with end-users and consumers closer than ever before. Fortunately, with so many stakeholders focused on improving recycling, progress is being made and this momentum can be continued going forward.
Jorge Izquierdo is VP of market development at PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies.