If you had to guess the most often recycled plastic in America, what would you say? You would be spot on guessing PET bottles. PET is a type of plastic we are all familiar with. It is also the most recycled plastic around the world. We recycle billions of pounds of it every year.
According to the most recent data we have available, U.S. companies recycled 1.9 billion pounds of PET bottles in 2021. That is impressive. What’s more impressive is how the recycled bottles are being put to use. Some of them are shredded and put back into manufacturing new bottles. But others are turned into eyewear frames, plastic parts, and even fibers that go on to become carpets and clothing.
An Easy Plastic to Work With
Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that collects and recycles commercial plastic waste in seven states. Baled PET bottles are one of the types of plastics they are happy to purchase from customers. They say PET is attractive to both recyclers and manufacturers because it is such an easy plastic to work with.
PET is lightweight and durable. It can easily be formed into a variety of shapes without any loss of integrity. It’s also easily recycled. Mechanical recycling quickly and effortlessly reduces scrap PET to shreds or flakes that can be further processed depending on what the recycled material will be used for.
King of the Recycling Heap
PET is king of the plastic recycling heap, at least where consumer plastics are concerned. It is a different story for commercial plastic recycling. Nonetheless, PET dominates plastic recycling globally.
Getting back to the previously mentioned data, here are the other five types of plastics included in the numbers, along with 2021 recycling volumes:
- Plastic film – 1.1 billion pounds
- Non-bottle rigid plastics – 1.07 billion pounds
- HDPE bottles – 927 million pounds
- PP & other bottles – 28 million pounds
- Other plastics (excl. foam) – 20 million pounds.
Although plastic film and non-bottle rigid plastics are recycled to the tune of billions of pounds annually, PET plastic is recycled at nearly twice the rate. Some of it has to do with the fact that so much PET is manufactured every year. The more we manufacture, the more we would be expected to recycle. But we still cannot discount how easy it is to recycle PET. That definitely has something to do with it.
There Is a Way Forward
The U.S. began plastic recycling efforts back in the 1970s. Unfortunately, where commercial plastic recycling has been an enormous success, municipal recycling has been a colossal failure. But the failure is not because plastic isn’t recyclable. We have failed because we built a recycling system and infrastructure incapable of doing the job properly.
We have a system in place, a system we have tried repeatedly over the last 50 years. The problem is that the system cannot work. On the other hand, the system put in place by the commercial plastic recycling industry works very well. Companies like Seraphim Plastics make a good profit doing what they do.
There is a way forward for consumer plastics if we are willing to adopt the commercial system. Therein lies the challenge. Applying the same commercial process to consumer plastics would require a lot more effort from both manufacturers and consumers.
The chances of adopting the commercial model for consumer recycling are not very high. So instead, we need to content ourselves with the knowledge that PET remains the most recycled plastic in America. We can be happy to recycle billions of pounds of it annually.