By Amanda Wills on May 24, 2010

The Numbers on Plastics


For reliable answers to all of your most pressing questions, Earth911 put together a quick cheat-sheet of facts about plastics recycling from some experts. Read on to learn more about recycling common plastics and finally find out what those resin codes really mean.

In recent years, the number of U.S. plastics recycling business has nearly tripled. More than 1,800 businesses are involved in recycling post-consumer plastics.

In recent years, the number of U.S. plastics recycling business has nearly tripled. More than 1,800 businesses are involved in recycling post-consumer plastics.

Plastics recycling fast facts

1. While overall recovery of plastics for recycling is relatively small – 2.1 million tons, or 6.8 percent of plastics generation in 2008 – recovery of some plastic containers has reached higher levels. PET soft drink bottles were recovered at a rate of 37 percent in 2008. Recovery of HDPE milk and water bottles was estimated at about 28 percent in 2008.
Source: U.S. EPA

2. The amount of plastics generation in municipal solid waste (MSW) has increased from less than 1 percent in 1960 to 12.0 percent in 2008.
Source: U.S. EPA

3. Today, 80 percent of Americans have access to a plastics recycling program.
Source: American Chemistry Council

4. In 2008, the United States generated about 13 million tons of plastics in the MSW stream as containers and packaging, almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, and almost 11 million tons as durable goods. The total amount of plastics in MSW – about 30 million tons – represented 12 percent of total MSW generation in 2008.
Source: U.S. EPA


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      • http://asklizfirst.com Liz Amason

        Excellent information. Thank you!

      • Bette

        MSW?

      • Gregorio

        Are there any numbers regarding how much petroleum is used in plastic production?

      • Luke

        Bette, MSW stands for municipal solid waste.

        By the way Amanda, great info!

        Cheers!

      • Erin

        MSW is municipal solid waste :)

      • http://www.plasticbagrecycling.org Nina Butler

        Amanda, great to see more facts on plastics. More than just “some major stores” accept #2 and #4 film plastic (ie bags, sacks, wraps). Basically all clean, dry #2 and #4 film plastic can be recycled with grocery bags at participating stores. The scrap film markets really want this material. Often signage says “plastic bags only” to avoid contamination of the film stream from bottles or other materials beyond recyclable film (bags, sacks, and wraps). Hopefully we can get more people to recycle items like toilet paper wrap, dry cleaning bags, newspaper bags, case wrap, etc.

      • Jeffrey

        Amanda, I appreciate that you correctly described the triangle of arrows on the bottom of many plastic containers as the resin identification code, which can be helpful in determining if an item is accepted in a local recycling program. The plastics industry cleverly chose a symbol which looks suspiciously like the internationally recognized chasing arrows. They have succeeded in confusing a lot of people who now think it means that the item is recyclable, which may not be the case.

      • Tory

        Had a local plastics buyer tell us that hte industry is changing to a system of 14 numbers for plastic, but haven’t been able to find out any more about it. Anyone have any details?

        (We’re a new, non-profit, volunteer driven recycling group in a very rural area.)

      • http://www.rossmoorrecycling.web.officelive.com jessica England

        Although intriguing, I cannot help but to think that some of the information (cited as having been obtained from the American Chemistry Council and the U.S. E.P.A.) is either incorrect or misrepresented.

        For instance, 20% of the entire nation’s population is without access to a plastics recycling program. Based on the total population of those residents who reside in unincorporated regions (specifically those in multiple family residences) alone, the percentage seems to be less than accurate. I have read on the EPA’s website itself that the percentage is something to the tune of 39%.

        The fact that most disturbed me, though, was that of the ‘2.1 million tons, or 6.8% of the total plastic generated’ line. Granted, this may be factual, however, the way that it sounds, especially to those who are not as keen on the topic, would very likely conclude that 30.8 million tons of plastic is the total amount of plastic produced (and not take it to be that which is actually only the total amount generated, or thrown away).

        It would be really awesome if you could add the data for plastic production for 2008 in there also. I wonder if the amount unaccounted for by the EPA’s totals would be an accurate means of measuring exactly how much plastic there is floating around out in the ocean. And, would these numbers include production levels of plastics in such things as lighters, pens, and straws (for instance)?

      • Stu

        Ridiculous reporting—you depend on plastic indystry stats to write this? Do some real reporting

      • DaMayaa Blackmon

        I think that it is better to recycle, reuse, reduce. Because we depend on these every day products these products can either make it a better or worse place to live in. If we recycle and dispose properly then we would have a better safe environment to live in, Others have not realized how much it has affected our environment. The more we recycle the more better our environment will become. SO GET OUT THERE AND LET’S START RECYCLING, REDUCING, REUSING. MAKE OUR WORLD A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE IN.

      • John Keiser

        Our municalrecycle program in Pittsburgh PA USA 15228, collects up to #7 plastic – so if more areas become this inclusive, hopefully the amount of plastics going into landfill willdiminish just as noticeably. Thanks for the great article, Amanda!

      • http://detroit-auto.spaces.live.com/ Ron Gillingham

        The real issue with any recycling program is that it has to make money. In order for any recycled material to be worth something, you must have product applications for that material. Contrary to what you might think, the auto industry leads the nation in the use of recycled plastics. PET (pop bottles) as an example, has found a new life being recycled into seat cloth, thus it has a high value. HDPE on the other hand does not have any high value post consumer applications. The price of recycled HDPE is when added to the cost of transportation, is so close to virgin material it is near worthless. I am co-founder of Green Object Optimization & Distribution our company is taking a pro-active approach. We will make entry to the market by being incorporated into current applications at a 30% rate. Yet in order to sustain the value of the material we will be rolling out new patented applications for the recycled material. Now lets really get GREEN and see how many of the new applications can be developed with the goal of becoming energy saving products!

      • http://www.ArtrageousBalloons.com JoAnn Gray

        I’m wondering how do we know if these (if any) plastic are BPA free? Or do they just have to be labeled BPA free to know?

      • http://www.goecobin.com Maz Mosharraf

        Ron is very correct in what he is saying and the program has to make $$$. EcoBin is a product that can be made of 100% recycled plastic and could be used all over the USA. The one product that can not be an import and is made is US. Who wants to know more? How about making homes with what we put in our landfill!!!!!

      • Diane

        Does anyone know about the Tervis drink cups and glasses that are sold on line or in department stores? They do not have a code on the bottom to tell me if they are safe.

      • http://www.vancoreplasticpackaging.com Cheryl

        I am a manufacture of plastic containers for both the food industry and the retail packaging. All plastic can be recycled if the infrastructure is put in place. PET is the most recycled material because of the water bottle push. It is true that there needs to be money made but as the price of oil continues to raise so does the price of plastic resin as well as the price for scrap plastic. I will be the first person to say plastic does not belong in landfills nor does it belong in our oceans but we as consumers have a throw away mentally hence we have plastic in our oceans and it is killing all sorts of animals that think it is food.

        There is enough plastic out there today that no large amount of plastic resin needs to be made if we cleaned up what we have already polluted.

        BPA is only harmful if heated, it started because women put plastic baby bottles in the microwave to heat them up which was never the intended use. If I recall baby’s drink Luke warm milk not milk that has been over heated then left to cool. But today everyone is in such a hurry to get what they want done they lose their common sense.

        There will come a time when plastic will be replaced by something better but for now we have what we have and only we as people can chose the way we will be responsible for cleaning up the mess we have made on our planet.

        I encourage everyone who reads this to reuse recycle which will reduce the amount of oil used by the plastic industry.

        Plastic is also a by product of oil so the question then becomes if we are not using this by product for plastic where will it go??????

      • jihad

        I think we can help buy telling more about recycling and starting program to remind people to recycle

      • Jay Barbee

        I’ve read the articles and comments posted here but no one seems to consider the cost in terms of dollars & cents to recycle glass/plastics. I would like to know what that number is..

      • http://www.biobailer.com Ross Headifen

        A couple of things.
        1) Why do we not require refundable deposits on all plastic drink bottles. Make it reasonable too like 50 cents. Those of us that don’t care about 50 cents will still throw the bottle away, but someone more careful will pick it up and get the refund. THis alone would elimate our plastic drink bottle trash problem very quickly. Plus their recycling efficiency would go very very high. It is win win all around. I find it incredible that we as a society have to contend with the trash these bottles (and other plastic) make when the manufacturers of these items have no responsibility at all for all the damage their products cause. Surely manufacturers own part of this responsibilty? Bottle manufacturers should put up the 50 cents for the bottle refund. Sure their products would go up in price and consumption of plastic drink bottles would go down, but THAT IS A GOOD THING for the earth.
        2) The 3Rs ought to be come the 4Rs. Reduce, Recycle, Reuse and Rejuvenate. All disposable plastic items should now be required to be made with a biodegradable additive in them to make them biodegrade whne placed in a landfill. Even if plastics are reused and recycled, eventually they will all end up in a landfill (hopefully not the ocean) and once in a landfill, they will biodegrade down to humus or plant food to rejuvenate the soil. Examples of companies making bioegradable additives are http://www.bio-tec.com or http://ecologic-llc.com/product/ Read these sites, they make a compelling argument.

      • http://Www.beatrixgroup.com Mary Clarkson Barkley

        A big THANK YOU for this list and the FACTS about plastic.

      • http://www.fpintl.com Shawn Lance

        In your article by Amanda Wills, http://earth911.com/news/2010/05/24/the-numbers-on-plastics/
        she says that the recovery of plastic bags is increasing but local curb sides do not accept since the recyclers do want them because they are a “hassle” & get caught in their machinery. These two issues seem opposed to each other.
        I have also read that some cities are requiring their recyclers to accept LDPE 4 bags. Do you know what direction this is headed, will recyclers start accepting? I know may cities are banning LDPE 4 bags but there are many items still being made for this lightweight material. Is there a master list of places that recycle lightweight (bags) LDPE 4 materials? We make lightweight air cushion with this material and would like to help our customers find recyclers.
        I appreciate your help.
        Thank you.