Package Recycling in the US: A Bin Half Empty or Half Full?

packaging recycling

While many Americans place their discarded packaging in household recycling bins for curbside pickup, that action does not automatically mean that the package will be recycled.

Package recycling is not simple. It’s a complex process and interdependent system that requires consumer engagement and cooperation, materials that can be recycled at commercial scale, a collection system that can handle most of the recyclable materials, reprocessing of the sorted materials into a form for manufacturing feedstock, and an end-market that will purchase and utilize the recycled materials.

If any part of the system fails or is inadequate, it’s likely that the package will end up in a landfill, incinerator or worse—as a pollutant in the environment.

In addition, a packaging material that can be recycled may not always be marketed as recyclable. Polypropylene (PP) is a case in point. While polypropylene is easily recyclable, only about 55% of U.S. households have access to PP recycling. To make an unqualified claim on a package as recyclable, recycling facilities must be available to at least 60% of consumers or communities where the package is sold, as per the U.S. FTC’s Green Guides.

package recycling symbol

Container Recycling Rates

According to the latest package recycling data from the U.S. EPA, packaging and containers accounted for about 82 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) or 28% of total MSW in 2018. Buoyed by high recycling rates for corrugated and paperboard, nearly 54% of generated packaging and containers were recycled in 2018. But that figure can be misleading because of the large variance among recycling rates for different packaging materials.

Let’s take a look at the disparity in recycling rates for various packaging substrates.

Plastic packaging. EPA estimates that 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging were generated in 2018. Plastic packaging products are comprised of different plastic resins, such as PET, HDPE, LDPE, PVC, PS, PP and others. PET bottles and jars were recycled at a rate of 29.1%, while HDPE milk and water bottles were recycled at a rate of 29.3%.

However, the overall recycling rate for plastic containers and packaging was only 13.6%. Nearly 17% was combusted with energy recovery, while more than 69% of plastic containers and packaging waste ended up in landfills.

Glass packaging. More than 30% or 3.1 million tons of glass containers were recycled in 2018. Roughly 13% of glass containers was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (55%) was landfilled.

Steel packaging. EPA estimates that 1.6 million tons or about 84% of steel cans (mostly cans for food products) were recycled in 2018. About 5% of steel containers was combusted with energy recovery; the remainder (21%) was landfilled.

Aluminum packaging. Approximately 670,000 tons of aluminum beverage cans were recycled, which represents about 50% of the total aluminum beverage cans produced. About 13% of the aluminum containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (52%) was landfilled.

Paper and paperboard packaging. The recycling rate for corrugated boxes was about 96% in 2018, notes the EPA, while the overall recycling rate for paper and paperboard packaging was nearly 81%. About 4% of paper and paperboard packaging was combusted with energy recovery, and the remainder (15%) was sent to landfill.

package recycling system

Finding Solutions

Earlier this year, the Consumer Brands Association (CBA) and its Recycling Leadership Council issued a report calling for a federal or national policy on advancing the U.S. residential recycling system. CBA’s Blueprint for America’s Recycling System identified three areas of focus: 1) data collection and reporting requirements, 2) recycling system standardization and harmonization, and 3) financing and end-market development.

A CBA survey found that 77% of Americans believe tackling plastic and packaging waste should be the federal government’s next “moon shot” and 93% agree that national standards would alleviate recycling confusion.

According to the report, there are about 10,000 municipal recycling systems with various rules. Eighteen states have different definitions for the terms “recycled” and “recycling”. To overcome this problem, the report calls on the EPA and other agencies to establish a definitive baseline of performance through a national data collection effort and to conduct a needs assessment to identify opportunities for investment and innovation.

The existing patchwork of recycling systems in the U.S. prevents economies of scale and contributes to consumer confusion and high contamination rates, says the report. To fix these challenges, the report urges the federal government to create standardized definitions of key recycling terms and establish national goals and minimum performance standards. It also calls for a certification program similar to the Energy Star or LEED standard that recognizes the top echelon of recycling programs, materials recovery facility (MRF) operations and performance.

To address recycling infrastructure investment and end-market issues like supply and demand, the report advocates for a federal block grant program to assist states with meeting national recycling goals and performance. The federal government should include recycling infrastructure improvement in any new, broad infrastructure bill and develop tax incentives for investment in recycling system and infrastructure upgrades. In addition, the report requests federal agency targets for purchasing recycled content, R&D grants to universities, and financial assistance to state recycling market development boards.

In March, environment consultancy Eunomia with support from Ball Corp. released a research report titled The 50 States of Recycling: A State-by-State Assessment of Containers and Packaging Recycling Rates. The top 10 states with the highest recycling rates for common containers and packaging materials (excluding cardboard and boxboard) are Maine (72%), Vermont (62%), Massachusetts (55%), Oregon (55%), Connecticut (52%), New York (51%), Minnesota (49%), Michigan (48%), New Jersey (46%), and Iowa (44%).

What makes these states top recycling performers? The study found that seven of the top 10 had good data quality, availability and state reporting systems. Eight of the top 10 have a Deposit Return System (DRS) for beverage bottles or “bottle bill” and have some of the highest landfill disposal costs on a per ton basis.

The study also found that states with DRS recycle 3.5 times more PET bottles and 3 times more aluminum cans than non-DRS states. Nine of the top 10 states with the highest recycling rates for PET bottles and aluminum cans are states with a DRS and curbside recycling infrastructure. Recycling one ton of aluminum has 3 times the greenhouse gas reduction benefit compared to recycling one ton of cardboard.

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By: Robert Swientek
Date: June 28, 2021