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What the California Commission’s Recommendations to CalRecycle Could Mean for Polypropylene

By Dylan de Thomas, Vice President of External Affairs

The California Statewide Commission on Curbside Recycling and Market Development recently published a report to CalRecycle with recommendations regarding a Statewide Standardized Acceptance List of Recyclable Materials (CA Statewide Recyclable List). While we applaud the Commission for their work to support the recycling system of California and achieve a more circular economy, the omission of polypropylene (PP #5) from the recommended list is concerning to The Recycling Partnership and our industry colleagues at the Association of Plastic Recyclers and Closed Loop Partners, as documented in our recent statement. This exclusion of PP bottles, rigid containers, tubs, and cups not only underestimates current and future recycling access, capture, and marketability of PP in California, but also proves detrimental to the growing momentum for PP recovery, recycling, and waste reduction nationwide.

PP is an important packaging material with high commodity values, large volumes in the curbside stream, known sortation and processing technologies, rapidly expanding infrastructure, and a strong future in the circular economy. PP is also a newer packaging material that, unlike PET and HDPE, does not have the opportunity to benefit from a redemption program in California. But due to its versatility and unique material qualities that allow for a broad range of hot and cold temperatures, PP is increasingly being used in packaging food and consumer products such as yogurt cups, butter tubs, fruit cups, cold cups, coffee pods, microwaveable meals, ice cream containers, and much more, to the tune of approximately 17 pounds per household per year. At these volumes, PP is estimated to be the third most prominent plastic in the residential stream, just behind PET and HDPE. In addition to its growing volume, recycled PP scrap values have increased tenfold in the past year alone.

Meanwhile, 71% of those surveyed recently on the West Coast believe that PP is recyclable in their curbside recycling. Consumer behavior does not change overnight, so, in the near-term, PP will continue to appear in the recycling stream and, in the long-term, PP recycling rates could be significantly hampered by consumer confusion and distrust. By omitting PP from the CA Statewide Recyclable List, the state will encourage consumers to waste rather than recycle PP and thereby discourage further private investment in PP sortation and processing equipment. This snowball effect over the long-term could destine significantly more PP to landfill and incineration, rather than back into the manufacturing supply chain and the circular economy. This would not only be disadvantageous to the state’s overall policy goal that not less than 75 percent of solid waste generated be source reduced, recycled, or composted, but also unfavorable to the numerous companies that have made global commitments to increasing the recyclability and recycled content of their products fivefold by 2025, many of which include PP.

As with many material categories, PP recycling was hard hit by China’s National Sword and related policies and the industry has swiftly responded to the domestic infrastructure upgrades necessary to recover and process more material on U.S. soil. However, rapid response in the recycling supply chain is like rapidly turning a barge – the course has been set but it takes time to achieve the new direction. PP recycling is on this new course and is still in the process of turning.

More than $20 million in private investments in PP recycling and processing are planned or underway in California alone as of early 2021, with more than $50 million in additional investments committed nationwide over the next 5 years through The Recycling Partnership’s Polypropylene Recycling Coalition (PP Coalition) and the Closed Loop Partners’ Circular Plastics Fund. To date, the PP Coalition has received applications from nearly ten Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in California looking to upgrade and expand PP sortation equipment this year alone, several of which are under consideration for receiving grants. PP is on the path to circularity and the Commission’s recent recommendations, if adopted by CalRecycle and enacted in statute in the near term, have the potential to hinder substantial progress in the infrastructure improvements and consumer education already well underway to enable a true circular economy for this material.

We encourage CalRecycle and the State of California to consider the unique situation and near-term potential of PP as it assesses the recommendations made by the Commission. Consumer confusion and mixed market signals could derail years of work and investment by both the public and private sectors to put PP on the pathway to circularity, greatly reducing plastic waste in California and nationwide and returning this material back into the circular economy for making new products with higher amounts of recycled content.