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Plastics play an important role in almost every aspect of our lives. Plastics are used to manufacture everyday products such as beverage containers, household items, and furniture. The widespread use of this valuable material demands proper management of used plastics, as they have become a larger part of the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream in recent decades.

Just the Facts

  • In 2010, the United States generated more than 13 million tons of plastics in the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream as containers and packaging, more 6 million tons as nondurable goods, and more than 11 million tons as durable goods.

  • The total amount of plastics in MSW—31 million tons—represented 12.4 percent of total MSW generation in 2010. Plastic represented less than 1 percent of MSW in 1960.

  • Recovery of plastics for recycling is relatively small — in 2010, only 2.5 million tons (8.2 percent of plastics generated) were recovered.

  • Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of the MSW stream. The largest category of plastics are found in containers and packaging (e.g., soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles), but they also are found in durable (e.g., appliances, furniture) and nondurable goods (e.g., diapers, trash bags, cups and utensils, medical devices).

  • Plastics also are found in automobiles, but recycling of these materials is counted separately from the MSW recycling rate.

How Plastics Are Recycled

According to the American Chemistry Council, more than 1,300 U.S. businesses handle or reclaim post-consumer plastics domestically. Plastics from MSW are usually collected from curbside recycling bins or drop-off sites. Then, they go to a material recovery facility, where they are sorted either mechanically or manually from other recyclables. The resulting mixed plastics are sorted by plastic type, baled, and sent to a reclaimer. At the reclaiming facility, the scrap plastic is passed across a shaker screen to remove trash and dirt, and then washed and ground into small flakes. A flotation tank then further separates contaminants, based on their different densities. Flakes are then dried, melted, filtered, and formed into pellets. The pellets are shipped to product manufacturing plants, where they are made into new plastic products.

In 1997, the ACC estimated that roughly one-half of all U.S. communities—more than 20,000—collected plastics for recycling, primarily PET and HDPE bottles, such as soda bottles. Roughly 7,400 communities collected plastics at the curb, and approximately 12,000 communities collected plastics through drop-off centers.

Benefits of Plastics Recycling

While overall recovery of plastics for recycling is relatively small, recycling of some plastic containers has reached higher levels. PET soft drink bottles were recovered at a rate of 29 percent in 2010. Recovery of HDPE milk and water bottles was estimated at about 28 percent in 2010. Significant recovery of plastics from polypropylene lead-acid battery casings and from some other containers was also reported.

Plastics are recycled for both economic and environmental reasons. Recycling and reuse of plastics have the obvious benefit of decreasing the amount of used plastics that end up in landfills. With increased plastics recycling, fewer natural resources need to be extracted to produce virgin plastic.

According to the ACC, plastics production accounts for between 4 and 5 percent of U.S. energy consumption. Though they are derived from nonrenewable natural resources, plastics' adaptable characteristics often enable manufacturers to reduce the material used, energy consumed, and waste generated in making a variety of products.