When summer ends, many of us can look back on vacations filled with road trips, adventures, and scenery of all kinds. While traveling just before the Labor Day holiday, I was greeted on a highway in Minneapolis by a gigantic billboard that read “Plastic Recycling is a Myth.” As someone who spends a significant portion of his time discussing the merits of recycling, after testifying publicly to the need for vastly expanding recycling in America, I couldn’t help but shake my head. This kind of message is not only inaccurate, it’s a lie that undermines public trust and consumer participation in the entire US recycling system.
Frustration with a deliberate attempt to spread misinformation aside, this experience lit a light bulb for me: aside from curbside trash cans and the age-old adage “reduce, reuse, recycle,” the average American probably doesn’t understand really how modern recycling works – and is therefore vulnerable to agenda-driven criticism. We’ve come a long way from previous eras of over-exporting our recyclable materials to foreign countries – and continued innovation and investment in recycling systems can continue to ensure that we recover, not waste, useful materials like plastics.
In recent years, recycling industry innovators here in America have harnessed the power of new technologies to optimize and revolutionize modern recycling. While a traditional human sorter at a recycling facility can process 40 pounds of material per hour, something called an “optical sorter” is capable of processing 3,300 pounds per hour. Optical sorting technology combines cameras, sensors, artificial intelligence and even robotic arms to sort materials with greater precision and capacity, which means we can recover more recyclable materials than ever before.
Beyond improving recycling processes for common recyclables, the plastics industry has invested billions of dollars in developing recycling methods for complex materials, such as chip bags and foam cups, that complement traditional recycling methods. Often referred to as “advanced recycling” techniques, these methods take advantage of scientific breakthroughs to break products down into their original building blocks, producing materials that can be used to make everything from auto parts to new consumer products and more.
The innovation doesn’t stop there, however. Researchers are working to apply advanced blockchain technology to advanced recycling. A “blockchain” is an impermeable digital record of a product’s history, which means that no one can modify it. Blockchain data for plastics at the polymer level can record details about how a plastic product was made, where and when it was sold, how it was recycled, and what new product it ultimately became.
Combining blockchain technology with scannable QR codes, this project would allow future shoppers in store aisles to instantly access data about a recycled product’s history, providing unparalleled traceability and irrefutable accountability for manufacturers and suppliers. consumer brands.
Even without the potential of blockchain, we already recycle 4.8 billion pounds of plastic every year, and that number is only growing. The Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) shared a report just a few weeks ago showing that recycling rates may not be as low as some would have you believe. In the same report, APR estimates that plastic waste recycling supports over 200,000 American jobs, which doesn’t strike me as a myth.
Additional research, provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, found that in a single year, recycling and reuse activities in the U.S. accounted for 681,000 jobs and $37.8 billion in wages , in addition to $5.5 billion in tax revenue.
In many cases, the biggest hurdle to recycling more materials is simply placing them in the correct receptacle after use. Imagine finishing a bottle of soda (it’s “pop” in Minnesota). You remember seeing a billboard proclaiming “Plastic recycling is a myth”, so you decide to throw that bottle in the trash instead of a recycling bin, making sure the bottle leaves the circular economy and ends up in a landfill. All of our scientific breakthroughs to recycle more plastic won’t work if the material never makes it to the recycling facility in the first place.
Not fully understanding recycling is one thing; making baseless claims that might encourage unnecessary waste is quite another. Recycling is real, and beyond being real, it’s exciting. Through education and innovation, we have the potential to create a true circular economy where all usable materials, like plastics, are endlessly recycled and reused, not wasted. Let’s focus on that future – not one characterized by misinformation.
Matt Seaholm is President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), the only association that supports the entire plastics supply chain, including recyclers.