The wobbly “truth” about the success of plastic recycling

According to the 2009 Report on Post Consumer PET Container Recycling Activity, recycling increased 28% in the US for the 6th consecutive year.

This statistic was touted in the news as an ever-growing commitment by consumers across the country to recycling efforts. But all is not what it seems.

According to a report in Consumer Digest (January-February 2010):

“Recycling programs vary from city to city, and there’s no national tracking system. Information regarding what’s being stockpiled is anecdotal, at best.”

While “facts” are available regarding PET plastic, it’s difficult to track down accurate comparable information on HDPE plastic, making it hard to gage any across-the-board success of recycling programs.

In the fourth annual surveydone by Plastics Recycling Update, 40% of HDPE recyclers said their volumes increased in 2009 while another 40 percent said their volumes were down. In the same survey, 53.8 percent of PET reclaimers said their volumes increased in 2009 while only 15.4 percent said their volumes declined.

As you can see, it’s challenging to figure out the overall picture in regards to how much total plastic is being recycled in the U.S.

True statistics on how much of which type of plastic has been recycled is difficult to find

PET (#1 plastic) and HDPE (#2) plastic make up approximately 96% of all plastic bottles produced in the US. This includes milk jogs, water, soft drink and juice bottles, shampoo, toiletries, laundry detergent, household cleaners, salad dressings and other types of food jars.

Many of the recycling statistics focus on just water and soda bottles, said Danny Clark, President of ENSO Bottles, Inc.

“They completely exclude the billions of shampoo, soap, food and non- food PET and HDPE bottles,” he said.

“While the increase for those specific segments is a move in the right direction,” Clark said, “we feel that it would be best to include all possible PET and HDPE bottles when making claims of improvement.”

“We are missing the boat and confusing many people about recycling by focusing on and cherry picking the “good stuff”.

With the decrease of total PET bottles and jars available for recycling in the US, it begs the question: do the numbers really reflect what’s going on in the market? Without any reliable gage or reporting mechanism, shouldn’t the focus be on getting the overall big picture instead?

Statistics (what there are of them) are showing that consumers are concerned about and aware of the increased need for recycling, while the recycling market is declining due to low market prices for recycled material. If only one side of the equation is successful, does that really mean the entire process is?

If the numbers don’t really reflect what’s going on, it seems that we need to put something in place that will give a more accurate view. The question is, what’s the mechanism that will help us do that? Is it legislation? Private industry stepping up? An NGO creating an overall reporting process? What’s your idea?