The Association of Plastic Recyclers

So, Should We Recycle? YES, WE SHOULD!

Authored by Lynn Rubinstein, Executive Director of the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) and Steve Alexander, President of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR)

Most people in the recycling community know that recycling is alive and well in the United States. Although there are current adjustments due to the actions of China, there are markets for recycled plastics. Domestic markets for materials may have shifted from historical buyer relationships to new potential customers. China's actions have also presented accelerated opportunities for recycling education and program improvements.This is not just a cup half full motivated by denial – it is a matter of facts.

Many of the mass media pieces that we have seen or heard – and this now includes NPR's Planet Money podcast (episode 926) – have featured the proverbial Chicken Little crying that the sky is falling. Yes, bad news is always so much more engaging than good news, and yes, if one major media outlet presents claims that the public is wasting its time recycling and that recycling is in fact harmful to the environment, then other media outlets don't want to be left out.

But we have a proposal to make: how about reporting the facts and the truth instead? The truth is plenty interesting and exciting, and presents an important opportunity for leadership and pushing back at "fake news." Alas, recycling now has its own fake news circuit and, unfortunately, NPR Planet Money has contributed to it.

Some of the "facts" reported on the NPR podcast versus the accurate facts:

You create more environmental harm by recycling plastic bottles than throwing them out.  So, don't try to recycle them. 
According to a recent Life Cycle Analysis of recycled plastic vs. virgin plastics, which include all of the consumptions and energy uses and emissions, recycling is vastly superior in every category to disposal.   This includes total energy, greenhouse gas generation, waste water, water consumption, solid waste, and other air pollution.        
There is no way to recycle plastic bottles in the United States, it all gets exported to Asian countries.  And, since China shut its doors, the U.S. is dumping its plastics on other Southeast Asian countries.   
There is a vibrant and economically thriving plastic bottle recycling here in the U.S.  In fact, we don't collect enough plastic bottles in recycling programs to take full advantage of existing recycling capacity. This isn't new.  It was true well before the China Sword policy enactment.
Plastic containers collected for recycling are being thrown out because they have to pay as much as $200/ton to recycle them.  This is happening all over the US.Plastic bottles are a very valuable commodity – people are not paying to have them recycled, they are being paid for them.  PET Bottle exports to China have actually declined steadily from a 2008 high of over 57% to 16% as of 2017. Presumably significantly lower in 2018 and 2019.  

Most plastic containers are not being thrown out all over the U.S., and having to pay to recycle them is an unusual and rare situation.  Water bottles, laundry detergent bottles and the like are highly valued for their recycling content.   
Our recycling efforts have been harming the ocean, adding significantly to the ocean plastic crisis. When they couldn't recycle something they shoved it into the oceans as a common way of handling the material. The Chinese have not been simply shoving plastic bottles into the ocean.  People all over China are drinking bottled water (and using plastic bags, and other plastic packaging, just as we do), but ironically, China – like much of Southeast Asia – does not have a widespread solid waste and recycling infrastructure, so the plastic gets thrown out, or littered.  The plastic gets washed by rain and storms into streams and rivers.

Many studies have demonstrated that the vast majority of the ocean plastic is coming from streams and rivers in Asia.  "Most of it isn't thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It's then blown or washed into the sea.1" Certainly not a case of plastic recyclers pushing plastic into the ocean. 
In order for plastic containers – such as peanut butter jars – to be recycled they have to be tripled rinsed in hot water. They shouldn't be full of peanut butter, but the usual leftovers on the sides just isn't a problem for recyclers. What is a problem are bottles full of liquids, half-full food containers, kitchen waste, and dirty diapers. 
Plastic lids from peanut butter jars are not recyclable and should always be thrown out. Like plastic water bottles, the plastic used in plastic lids from peanut butter jars – and other food containers – is a high value plastic with a strong domestic recycling industry. 
If our plastic containers were perfectly clean China would buy them. Whether a plastic container is perfectly clean or not, China is no longer accepting shipments of plastic for recycling.  And, the original issue was never dirty peanut butter jars, it was shipments of plastic that had high levels of non-plastic materials – such as cans, auto parts, and paper. 
You have to pay to recycle corrugated cardboard, so it usually gets thrown out.If the cardboard is soaking wet then it is garbage. But as long as it's not, like water bottles, this is a readily recyclable material – in the U.S. This has been true and continues to be true.  It is not being thrown out by recyclers or recycling programs.

[1] Quote from Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, National Geographic, June 2018,

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