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The Many Challenges of Plastic Recycling

Image credit: Green Lifestyle Magazine

Upwards of 100 million tons of plastic are manufactured annually across the globe. That’s 200 billion pounds of new material on-market every year, ready to be thermoformed, laminated, foamed and extruded into billions of products and packages. In the past decades it has been widely adopted by industry, and plastic has become one of the most ubiquitous and versatile materials in the world – and, subsequently, one of the most difficult to reliably collect and recycle.

In the United States, our recovery rate for all plastic rests at 9 percent, according to the most recent Municipal Solid Waste report from the EPA. Most of what is recovered consists of PET and HDPE, as they clearly dominate the plastic recyclables market. Still, the recovery rates for PET and HDPE are only 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Even for our most valuable plastics, what are the challenges that prevent us from reaching higher overall recovery rates?

Pigmented Plastic

If plastic products were consistent in their resin composition, color, transparency, weight and size, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation, as everything could be recycled together; this is more or less the case with aluminum, which enjoys the highest rates of global recycling. With millions of different plastic products and packages on the market, clearly this is not the case. Dyed and pigmented plastics, for example, can be troubling for materials recovery facilities (MRFs) as they have a much lower market value.

Clear plastics are always preferred in the recycled materials market, and have the highest material value. This is because transparent plastic can typically be dyed with greater flexibility. The next best is white, as its only limit is that it cannot become clear, but can be made into any other color. However, the colored plastics (especially opaque varieties) are often limited to become darker shades of the original dye, or black. For this reason some recycling facilities consider certain pigmented plastics contaminants to the recycler stream, and subsequently dispose of them instead of recycle them. This issue is extenuated with the low cost of oil, as that makes it even harder for recyclers to compete with the price of virgin polymers.

Manufacturers who hope to ensure their post-consumer packaging can be properly recycled should consider the pigment and translucence of their bottles and containers. Even a PET container may not be recycled by some recycling facilities if it is colored and/or opaque.

“Sustainable” Packaging

Many manufacturers have turned to packaging alternatives lauded for their eco-friendly or sustainable properties. Multilayered and other forms of lightweight packaging are one increasingly popular example. While source reduction is typically a great idea (and can certainly have practical applications), the lightweighting trend does have some long-term side effects. For the most part, the sachets, flex-packs, and laminated plastic pouches manufacturers are turning to are universally considered non-recyclable. This is less of a concern when recycling rates are low (sending a lightweight pouch to landfill is better than sending a heavy rigid plastic with more mass), but once recycling rates start to increase, non-recyclable lightweight options make little sense from a sustainability perspective.

Then there are bioplastics produced with renewable materials, such as plant biomass. While some varieties, especially the durable ones, can be regularly recycled alongside conventional plastics, others are viewed as contaminating materials and, as such, must be sent to landfill. Some even make claims of biodegradability, which can be misleading when you consider that many should typically be sent to industrial composting facilities to fully break down.

Consumer Confusion

In the late 80s, the Society of the Plastics Industry developed the resin identification codeto help recycling facilities identify the plastics they were processing. These small codes, printed on plastic bottles, containers and packages, have helped many recycling facilities and MRFs collect, sort and process higher volumes of plastic materials with greater accuracy. This is great, but came with new drawbacks to consider.

The chief concern is that current RICs look strikingly similar to the universal recycling symbol, causing many consumers to mix non-recyclable plastics into the recycling bin. The responsibility then falls on the consumer to be aware of which resins are and are not accepted by their local municipal recycling program. In fact, many consumers have indicated that they are confused about which plastics they can and cannot recycle. Saturating MRFs with non-recyclable plastics can increase overhead sorting costs (only to be sent to landfill anyway).

There is good news ahead of us, however. In 2013, it was announced that revisions to the resin identification code  would eliminate the use of the “chasing arrows” symbol in favor of an equilateral triangle, and some #7 plastics (or “Other” for miscellaneous resins) will have to identify the resin type in addition to the code. This could help limit some of the confusion for consumers, especially as the new revisions continue to be adopted by manufacturers moving forward.

GreenBlue’s How2Recycle Label is another possible way forward, and is already being adopted by many of the world’s largest brands and product manufacturers. By providing simple images and recycling instructions on each individual label, consumer-side confusion can be greatly mitigated. It all comes down to providing consumers with enough information to make the proper disposal choice for each component of the product or package.

The Future of Plastic Recycling

In today’s market, the only way to ensure plastics will be properly recycled is for manufacturers to make all of the above considerations when designing their products and packaging. This can be particularly challenging for products with strict packaging requirements, such as food or beverages that must use certain packaging formats to increase shelf life and preserve the product.

While the U.S. as a whole may be a ways off from emulating European (or even Californian) recycling models, we are seeing many key innovations and improvements that are helping to make it become a reality. Recovery rates for plastic bottles are improving; single-stream recycling has helped increase recovery rates for many previously non-recycling communities; consumers are demanding packaging be made with more sustainable materials, and manufacturers are starting to listen; exciting innovations in plastic recycling are being developed; many states have enacted extended producer responsibility legislation for certain forms of waste; and a growing number of municipalities are banning certain difficult-to-recycle plastic products and are developing their own waste reduction and recycling goals initiatives.

We are on the right path toward better recovery rates and more efficient recycling processes, even if it has been (and will continue to be) a bumpy road ahead.


Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle Inc., a leader in eco-capitalism and upcycling. In 2001, Tom left Princeton University as a freshman to launch a worm-poop-based fertilizer company. In 2007, the company expanded to start collecting difficult-to-recycle… [Read more about Tom Szaky]