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Green Building News

What Makes Plastic ‘Recyclable’?

Two trade groups seek a common definition and an end to confusion in the marketplace

Is this plastic recyclable? Trade groups representing plastic recyclers the U.S. and Europe are working together on a common definition of what the word means.
Image Credit: Michael Coghlan / Flickr

Trade groups representing plastic recyclers in Europe and the U.S. are working together on a common definition of the word “recyclable” in an effort to reduce confusion in the marketplace.

Plastic News reports that the Association of Plastic Recyclers, which is based in the U.S., and Plastics Recyclers Europe are teaming up to correct misleading claims that some plastics are recyclable when in fact they are not used as raw materials to make new products.

“As more and more people put out these sustainability goals and metrics by 2025, 2030, 2040, what does it mean?” asked Steve Alexander, the president of the American group. “We’re trying to say for the recycling organizations, ‘this is what recyclability means.’ Ultimately what you want to do is go from recyclable to recycled.”

According to a joint statement from the groups, four conditions should be met in order for a plastic product to be labeled recyclable. They are:

  • It must be made from a plastic that is collected for recycling, and either has market value or is included in a legislative mandate.
  • It must be sorted into defined streams for recycling.
  • It can be recycled and reclaimed using a commercial recycling process.
  • It can be used in the production of new products.

Both groups have also been in discussions with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose New Plastics Economy initiative encourages the use of more discarded plastics in new products.

“The use of the term ‘recyclable’ is consistently used with packages and products without a defined reference point,” Alexander’s prepared comment said. “At the end of the day, recyclability goes beyond just being technically recyclable. There must be consumer access to a recycling program, a recycler must be able to process the material, and there must be an end market.”

Ton Emans, president of the European group, said it was important for “appropriate audiences” to know what is required in order to label a product or a package “recyclable.”

Consumers may assume that all plastics can be recycled. But some mostly plastic goods contain barrier layers or other materials that make them unsuitable for recycling.

The joint effort comes at a chaotic time in the global recycling marketplace. Until this year, China had been a major importer of recycled materials. But it has stopped accepting many types of solid waste, including some plastics, because the material contained too many contaminants. The campaign against “foreign garbage” disrupted established trade practices; some material picked up for recycling in the U.S. has since gone to landfills or been burned in waste-to-energy plants instead.

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