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Three Years of Meaningful, Measurable Impact: How The Polypropylene Coalition Is Driving Progress in Recycling for #5 Plastic

Reporting Grantees Are Seeing Ninefold Increase in Polypropylene Capture 

By Brittany LaValley, Senior Director of Materials Advancement 

With July 2023 marking the three-year anniversary of The Recycling Partnership’s Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, it’s a fitting moment to not only reflect on the impact of our granting program, but also recognize the context of polypropylene (or “PP”) recycling and changes in polypropylene recycling more broadly. 

Launched with the objective of improving polypropylene recovery in the U.S., the Coalition brings together stakeholders from across the PP value chain to provide grants that support new and improved PP capture using sortation technology. Including the latest round of grants being awarded this month to the City of Phoenix Transfer Station in Arizona, Scott County, Iowa, Curbside Management in North Carolina, Balcones San Antonio facility in Texas and Chittenden Solid Waste District in Vermont, the Coalition has provided $10.3 million in grant funding to 41 materials recovery facilities (MRFs).  

Once MRFs can install and operationalize new equipment, these investments are estimated to result in more than 42 million new pounds of PP recovered annually for processing in growing domestic markets, giving this material another life. In addition to the increase in PP recovery, 34.2 million people in over 600 communities have a new or expanded ability to recycle polypropylene as part of their recycling programs, keeping valuable recyclables out of landfills. As these investments evolve, examples of the impact can be seen in places like Ohio. At the end of 2020 prior to the Coalition awarding PP equipment and education grants, just 34% of homes in the state were able to recycle polypropylene. Today 69% of Ohio homes have this ability. 

PP Grants three-year impacts

With 41 grantees at varying stages of their projects, ranging from ordering their new equipment to installation and operation, one-third of grantees have had their equipment in place long enough to provide sufficient data on the impact of the grants. The reporting facilities collectively captured 1.3 million pounds of PP annually pre-grant; post-grant they are capturing 11 million pounds of PP annually — a ninefold increase. Translated into recycling rates, this represents an estimated increase from 1.2% pre-grant to 10% post-grant.  

facility impacts of PP Grants

Both the size of the opportunity for polypropylene recovery and the history of PP recycling point to why this is considered meaningful progress. Firmly established as a material used in food and non-food packaging (e.g., yogurt containers, butter tubs, cold drink cups, and cleaning products), polypropylene represents a huge recycling opportunity. Based on The Recycling Partnership’s generation and capture studies, we estimate that U.S. single-family households generate more than 2 billion pounds of PP annually. If just 30% of this material were recovered (a rate on par with iconic recyclables such as PET bottles and HDPE jugs) it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 311,000 metric tons and provide 609 million pounds of valuable raw material to companies with recycled content commitments, both voluntary and mandated. 

While recycling programs have been around for decades, unlike PET and HDPE bottles which have long been sorted separately, up until 10 years ago polypropylene was largely sorted into “mixed plastics” bales that relied on export markets. China’s 2018 National Sword policy helped shift the focus to domestic markets for PP and drove more interest in dedicated PP sortation. The past few years have seen meaningful investment in recovery and processing advancements, evidence of which can be found, for example, in plastic reclaimer, KW Plastics. They indicate that their facility reprocessed over 90 million pounds of post-consumer PP packaging in the past 12 months, nearly 35% more than they reprocessed two years earlier. They also announced the addition of 100 million pounds of new PP processing capacity in 2023. In addition to a new facility built by PureCycle to produce more than 107 million pounds a year of high-quality recycled PP plastic, Denton Plastics is adding new capacity. These investments demonstrate a commitment and willingness to invest in recycled PP from an industry perspective. 

Polypropylene’s popularity as a material used in product packaging has fueled both an increase in the amount of PP generated by U.S. households and a surge in demand for post-consumer recycled PP. Against this backdrop, we still have work ahead for PP to achieve a recycling rate on par with that of iconic recyclables. But the signs of change are unmistakable. There is no greater evidence of the evolving PP landscape than the State of Oregon’s recent determination that PP would be included in the State’s “universal statewide collection list” – a list of materials to be accepted in Oregon’s curbside programs. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) conducted extensive deliberations and set a high bar in making this determination, considering many factors including: the stability of markets, the feasibility of MRF sortation, and the ability of households to identify materials as recyclable. PP’s success in satisfying these criteria in Oregon, a state that historically relied on export markets for mixed plastics, is a clear indication of how far PP has come as a mainstream recyclable. 

While PP is undoubtedly making progress as a recyclable material through the Coalition’s support and other meaningful investment, much more work and investment will be needed to unlock the full range of environmental and economic benefits of polypropylene recycling. PP recycling has a bright future, and with continued support and investment, it will be well-positioned to become a universally accepted recyclable material. 

The mission-driven work of the Coalition is currently supported by contributions from organizations representing all segments of the material’s value chain. Members include Keurig Dr Pepper, Braskem, The NextGen Consortium, the Walmart Foundation, Advanced Drainage Systems, Berry Global, Campbell Soup Company, EFS-plastics, Ferrero, The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation, KW Plastics, LyondellBasell, Merlin Plastics, Milliken & Company, Nestlé, Plastic Ingenuity, PolyQuest, Procter & Gamble, Sabert, St. Joseph Plastics, TotalEnergies, and Winpak. The Coalition is advised by industry leaders, including Association of Plastic Recyclers, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, World Wildlife Fund, and Closed Loop Partners. 

For anyone interested in learning more about the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition’s efforts, visit recyclingpartnership.org/polypropylene-coalition/