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By The Numbers Webinar: Unpacking the Data Behind Plastics Recycling

In October 2022, The Recycling Partnership kicked off By the Numbers, a new webinar series for industry stakeholders focused on current trends in the U.S. recycling system and a circular economy.

The first webinar in this series was held on October 26 and unpacked the data behind plastics recycling. Participants heard from national subject-matter experts and NGO leaders about sources of plastics recycling rate information, what these rates tell us, and the drivers of recycling rate improvement.

By the Numbers Unpacking the Data Behind Plastics Recycling webinar participants included:

  • Keefe Harrison, CEO & Co-Founder, The Recycling Partnership
  • Erin Simon, Head, Plastic Waste & Business, WWF
  • Scott Mouw, Senior Director of Strategy & Research, The Recycling Partnership
  • Aaron Burman, VP of Data, & Analytics, The Recycling Partnership

Key takeaways from the data webinar include:

  • Published recycling rates from EPA include items not commonly thought of in the residential recycling stream (e.g. durable goods); 
  • Each of the three major categories EPA uses – durables, non-durables, and packaging – should be thought of in their own context, not only in how they affect the overall recycling rate, but also in what can be done through programs, policies, and other efforts to increase their individual recycling rates. 
  • If we focus on plastic containers and packaging, recently published recycling rates are just over 13%.  There is much work ahead to improve on this, but recycling rates reflect historical results of an evolving system – recycling rates don’t tell us what the future will look like.  
  • Recycling rates are just one metric that can be applied to plastic products. Other key ones include measures of potential elimination/reduction, recyclability and recycled content. 
  • Data from WWF’s ReSource report shows that industry is taking action.  
  • ReSource members are investing in, and advocating for, solutions (EPR, UN Global Treaty, Polypropylene recovery) and making commitments to eliminate problematic and unnecessary materials (e.g. polystyrene, PCV). 
  • Among households with recycling access through curbside carts, capture rates are fairly high (e.g. PET bottles – 48%, natural HDPE bottles -60%).  This gives us a glimpse of what can be achieved if strong recycling services are available to everyone.  However, 40% of Americans don’t have easy access to recycling and among those that do, not everyone participates and most households don’t recycle all they can. With access and engagement / education, we estimate that our national recycling rate for all residential materials, including plastics, could increase from 32% (for all materials) to 68%. 
  • Demand for recycled plastics is expected to grow – for example, if brands successfully achieve their content goals, demand for new rPET in packaging alone is expected to be 1.5B lbs. To meet this demand, the supply of collected plastics needs to double, which would dramatically increase recycling rates. 
  • MRFs are processing and marketing the vast majority of plastic material they receive, and with ongoing investments, supported in part by grant funding for equipment and technical assistance (e.g. polypropylene), MRFs will be able to process an increased amount and wider range of materials.  
  • Policy will be a big driver of plastic recycling improvement as we move to systems with clear goals and targets and require private industry to share in the cost.  


Questions Answered in the Webinar Recording

Q: Is polyester clothing included in non-durable plastic goods?
A: Yes, here is how EPA defines “other non-durables” in the plastics data: All other non-durables include plastics in disposable diapers, clothing, footwear, etc.

Q: What is the relative composition of the plastic waste stream? What percentage is durable goods vs non-durable vs. packaging?
 A: Durable goods is 38% of generated plastics in the EPA report. Non-durables are 21% and plastics packaging is 41%

Q: Does the “No plastic in nature by 2030” include landfill use?
A: Getting to no plastic in nature is first and foremost about targeting the tactics to address mismanaged materials that are likely to end up in nature and one of those tactics focuses on the need to move to a circular system in the first place. Landfill is not seen as circular – controlled landfill is obviously better than mismanaged, but is seen as a waste of resources

Q: China stopped taking recyclables so who takes it now, and isn’t the United Nations committees a possible referee for these global data and solution initiatives?
A: Recyclable plastic packaging in the U.S. overwhelmingly goes to domestic markets, a trend that has increased over time.  For example, here is information from APR’s latest report regarding plastic bottles: U.S. and Canadian reclaimers acquired 94.7 % of the bottles recycled in the U.S. in 2019, and reclaimers in the U.S. purchased 88.6 %. Moving waste around globally is inefficient if the target is to get to a circular economy. This means that countries need to set targets for waste reduction and increased recovery of materials for secondary use. This will lead to investment in infrastructure and sensible legislation that drives greater recovery of those materials. Ideally, a global instrument like what we are working for through the UN process would establish the overarching framework for what those global commitments should be, alignment on the accounting framework for measuring progress and a toolkit for countries to implement solutions that work for the diverse communities globally

Q: Have any of the panelists heard about whether there has been any progress in solving the problem of preventing plastic liners that recyclables are collected in from entering waste streams? For example, for haulers that do not accept plastic liners in combination with recyclables, is there anything that can be done to recycle the liners?
A: That is one of the top issues we help communities address.  Agree it’s a big issue – we don’t want good recyclables to get thrown away!  Here are some free outreach materials that anyone can use on that (and other contamination concerns).  https://recyclingpartnership.org/fight-contamination

Q: What is “trash access?” Is it access to trash collection? Or something else?
A: Correct – that means trash collection.

Q: What incentivizes people to stop putting recycling in the trash?
A: The new Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact has some great research underway and we’ll be eager to share it:  https://recyclingpartnership.org/behavior-change

Q: Is The Recycling Partnership and those corporations listed earlier doing any lobbying in states without bottle bills?
A: We work in both types of states:  https://recyclingpartnership.org/accelerator

Q: What do MRFs do with recycled material once it is sorted?
A: They sell it to recyclers who turn it into new materials.  Here’s a list of plastic recyclers for example:  https://plasticsrecycling.org/buyers-and-sellers-directories

Q: Is that 68% recycling rate with access and education JUST with education, or would it include policies like PAYT? If not, any estimate of where we would be if PAYT were implemented as well?
A: The 68% is a projection of what can be recovered when there is universal equitable access to recycling and when households are robustly educated and motivated to recycle. PAYT would be one way to increase that motivation.

Follow-up Answers from Additional Webinar Questions

Q: Is singlestream recycling the best way to collect recyclables? Or do we need to push the mindset to take the extra step towards manned drop off locations with separate material recycling bins. Here in Northern Indiana its common for the rumor of comingled recycling to becoming easily contaminted and then questioned on if our recycling is actually being reycled. Do we have innovative ways to handle contaminated recycling for the future or is comingled recycling setting us up for failure?
A: For better or worse, single stream is the system that the vast majority of the country has.  Singles stream dramatically reduces collection costs and makes recycling more convenient for the consumer. It does, however, then require separation of the material at a MRF and so it is important to address and reduce unwanted materials in the stream before it arrives at that step.  We have found that commingling the material significantly increases the number of people who participate in the program. We help support MRFs to install equipment to improve the separation of materials and are even evaluating systems that can separate plastic bags from single stream to market that material. We also support communities in deploying effective anti-contamination campaigns. 

Q: EREF’s recent study attempted to inform this discussion by focusing on GHG aspects of various materials – as a guide to the biggest bang for the buck.  How does TRP make use of that analysis – beyond collection/capture rates?
GHG emissions from producing and shipping packaging are an important consideration for choosing packaging materials. The emissions get more complicated as we start to incorporate circularity, having to assume how many times the material is recycled into a new product (or reused) or what percent post-consumer content is included. If the package is recycled into a durable good, it is not clear how to account for this in the production of the original package. Finally lightweighting packages or switching to flexible packaging can reduce GHG emissions but also reduce the likelihood of it being recycled. While we don’t have any definite conclusions, GHG emissions should be considered in conjunction with recyclability.

Q: What is the best way to account for lightweighting, and the idea that recycling rates may stay stagnant in terms of tonnage but the number of containers is increasing?
In the typical way recycling rates are measured, weight clearly remains the key parameter, as opposed to an item count of materials generated. Such an item count would be complicated by questions and challenges of granularity (e.g., are we counting all PET bottles generated or bottles by type – soda, water, salad dressing, etc). It is a fair point that the number of items does matter but unclear how a calculation of number of containers would be practically accomplished given available statistics. It could be argued or presumed that the number count and weight would be balanced evenly in what is represented in recycling and disposal. It is certainly possible that lighter bottles are more frequently recycled than heavier ones, or vice versa. Again, unfortunately, data is not available.

Q: Do EPA recycling rates reflect the amount of material collected for recycling or amount actually recycled?
A: The amount collected for recycling

Q: How will food waste collection programs shift/change recycling rates?
Food waste collection programs will first and foremost affect measured diversion rates for food waste itself but as a relatively heavy material, it will strongly affect overall U.S. (or state or local) recycling rates if diversion is achieved at scale and provided the end use of food waste (e.g., composting, food rescue, digestion) is counted as “recycling.”

Q: In regard to the slide showing the shelf of snack chip bags, etc. with a title of LDPE, those types of packages are typically multi-layer material; in our region those are not accepted with the LDPE #2 and #4 plastic film at store take-back. I’m not aware of any recycling options for that multi-layer material, would love to hear of what exists in other places.
Multilayer film clearly presents significant technical and economic recycling challenges, and will require substantial effort from industry and other stakeholders to become recyclable. Some producers are considering ways to move from multi-layer to single material packaging but it will likely need to be assessed on a product-by-product basis.

Q: Do bioplastics confuse people as well? Or is this just such a small percentage of contamination?
Yes, this can be confusing. Some standard recyclable plastics – e.g., PET – can be made from bio sources as opposed to petrochemical sources (see, for example, https://www.coca-colacompany.com/news/100-percent-plant-based-plastic-bottle). But “bio-plastic” can also be used by some to refer to biodegradable or compostable plastics such as PLA. The bio-based PET would not be a contaminant in recycling but the compostable plastic would be, and vice versa for industrial composting.  This underscores the need to be specific and granular in communicating about plastics and measuring the effect on recycling rates.

Q: How do you find the people to put those feet on the street?
Many communities are able to work with labor sourcing agencies or companies to staff feet-on-the-street activation. Contact us through our Contamination Kit sign-up for more information: https://recyclingpartnership.org/contamination-kit/

Q: How is the price of virgin plastic changing and projected for the future?
Unfortunately we don’t have that information, but very generally, virgin plastic prices track with the price of oil and natural gas. Market consulting firms such as IHS Markit are potential sources of this information.

Q: How is the Oregon state glass bottle program coming along? Are CPG companies embracing the state-designed and supplied bottle?
This question is best addressed to Oregon DEQ and the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative (OBRC).

Q: Is there any effort or cross collaboration focused on the MRFs industry to standardize what they collect? One MRF will collect something that another won’t. Ex. Pizza boxes. This seems to a big opportunity to align the industry and help improve communication.
Most MRFs are independent private actors who ideally work closely with their community program customers to determine what materials are allowed to be collected and brought to the MRF. As full participants in that process, it is very important for community recycling programs to stay up-to-date with material and market trends and also network with fellow programs so they can work effectively with their MRF on this issue, which should encourage some level of harmonization over time. Unfortunately, there is no coordinating platform or body to harmonize acceptance across the country although some states (often through EPR laws) do work to coordinate this issue on the state level in the form of statewide minimum collection lists.

Q: For the consumer deception piece, why are some MRFs accepting certain materials but have no means on actually recycling them? This creates a lot of mistrust from a consumer standpoint.
This is another area in which the “two-way street” of community programs and MRFs needs to be functioning at a high level. If both parties are highly informed and transparent with each other, they will choose the best set of materials to collect and process, taking into account material markets and other factors. It is then important for the community programs and the MRFs to communicate clear and specific information to citizens on what should be in their carts or bins. This is the best way to prevent MRFs from receiving unwanted materials that they then dispose of, to the economic detriment of both communities and the MRF.

Q: I would love to know how you calculated the CO numbers on your slide. We’ve hesitated to make guesses on impact so would be excited to be able to share those types of figures.
We used data from our many capture studies from around the country to estimate the generation of different materials, then using our National Database we estimated the recovery for different types of recycling programs for both single family and multifamily households, including estimates of in-house capture and program participation. These were projected for the anticipated number of households who will receive expanded recycling services under the CO EPR program.

Q: what money paid for the Colorado recycling services?
It will be funded by the Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) that will in turn be funded by the producers of printed paper and packaging through fees placed on their products. The amount of funding raised and fees assessed will be based on an overall assessment of what Colorado needs to achieve universal recycling access and recycling rates that will be set by the PRO and approved by the state.

Q: Can you comment on how recyclable or reusable packaging can add value for a program?
Reusable packaging is getting more attention, in part because of some new state laws, such as in California, but also because of brand commitments under the U.S. Plastics Pact. Because reusable packaging will eventually reach its own end of life, it is important that it also be recyclable. Reusables will theoretically reduce the amount of material generated as discards and have some effect on the denominator of recycling rate calculations, depending on the scale of adoption. In general, of course, the more recyclable all packaging is, the easier it will be to achieve higher recycling rates.

Q: How are you working with manufacturers to not label their products ‘recyclable’? I’m specifically thinking of Colgate’s new HDPE toothpaste tube that is technically recyclable but not recoverable.
We continue to have dialogue with many brands and other stakeholders about recyclability and have dedicated considerable time and effort to develop a tool for brands and others to use: our circular packaging assessment tool . Other key stakeholders such as the Association of Plastics Recyclers are also working hard on this issue with design guides:  https://plasticsrecycling.org/apr-design-guide  Clearly there is a need for ongoing dialogue, but taking steps to create technical recyclability is important and should be recognized as advancing the issue.

Q: Do you have more information about CRV?
It is best to address this issue to Cal Recycle, the State of California’s recycling program.

Q: We received a number of questions about the recent Greenpeace Report, news reporting on plastics recycling , and steps that The Partnership is taking to address the narrative about plastic recycling.
In addition to the statement we issued in response to the Greenpeace report, we commented more specifically on the report’s data and methodology in our letter to Greenpeace posted on LinkedIn.  We will continue to advocate for thoughtful, transparent, and data-based solutions designed to make recycling better. Our By the Numbers webinar series was launched with that very goal in mind; and we were delighted to have participants from communities, government, industry, NGOs, the media, and other sectors.  Our goal was for participants to deepen their understanding of what the plastic recycling data is telling us and what it will take to improve. We will continue to focus the discussion on the hard but impactful work of building a better system.

Q: We also received some questions about the best ways to educate people and build trust when it comes to recycling.
There are many free tools and resources on our website designed to create educational campaigns, including a campaign builder (which enables communities to customize their campaigns) and DIY signs.  In addition, research conducted by our Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact shows that the highest levels of confidence in recycling exist when people receive communication from their local communities and that greater transparency about recycling outcomes would improve trust. For example, videos that demonstrate what happens to recyclables once they leave the home (e.g. an example from Baltimore county) can help to build trust.

Q: We had a question for Hilary Gans of SBWMA to clarify the container vs fiber messaging used for the public?
Examples of SBWMA messaging can be found here and here.

Q: We also had a question for Hilary Gans about the impact of the CA bottle bill and whether SBWMA process these containers and benefits.
Yes most definitely.  The CRV California redemption program is a complicated system of payments that are intended to provide subsidies / incentives to different elements of the recycling system. SBWMA’s 2021 data shows that for every dollar of scrap revenue they made 5 dollars of CRV revenue.  This program is essential to keeping recycling going in California.