Why Recycled Containers Aren’t Making Their Way Back to Your Table

This article will discuss some of the highlights, from the 2020 Virginia Recycling Association (VRA) and Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Webinar Series and why your recycled containers aren’t finding their way back into the market.

Recycled containers and their prices fluctuate similar to all items on the market. A reoccurring topic brought up throughout the series was the exponentially increasing market for HDPE #2 Bottles. HDPE, short for High Density Poly Ethylene, is what your average run of the mill household items such as milk containers, detergent, and soap bottles are made of. In the recycling industry these types of containers are commonly sought after due to their ever so increasing value and quantity.

The Hard Numbers

“The price for a bale of natural HDPE #2 bottles (primarily milk jugs) surpassed 61 cents per pound for the first time in October, up from an average of 55.13 cents in September and 46.38 cents a year ago……We saw a 69% jump in prices for colored HDPE #2 containers, (primarily laundry detergent bottles) between September and October” (Virginia Recycling Association , 2021, p. 3).

These numbers are astonishing, and the value of recycled containers is only going up. Let’s take a second to look at the pie chart above: Eight uses were determined for post-consumer HDPE. However, none of these uses are for food and beverage consumption. The largest category at 37.4% was Non-Food Bottles. Bottles, glass containers, and other beverage vessels are extremely easy to recycle, so why aren’t we seeing them recycled back into food or drink safe items? This is a consequence of contamination (food and beverage remanence) and inadequate recycling methods resulting in a lack of supply for companies. These contaminated containers are either down-cycled (for a lesser use), put in landfills, or burnt with regular trash inside a incinerator.  We are not closing the recycling loop, in turn creating more litter and waste in the long haul. It’s inherent that these practices are taking a massive toll on our environment. We fail to recognize that the issue at hand is much more than individuals recycling their bottles, it’s a matter of the condition they are in when deposited, facilities, and additional systems in place to properly recycle them.

What Can We Do?

It is the hefty process to give a container a second life. Because of that most states are limited in their means of recycling, Virginia is no exception. Large costs account for collection fees, recycling and production, additionally out of state imports due to lack of proper facilities. Why should recycling companies and consumers be limited and pressured into paying these competitive prices for sustainable practices? One way to solve this is dilemma is through container deposit systems. Ten states have jumped on this bandwagon and hopefully Virginia one day too through what we call “Bottle Bills”. Enacting legislation such as this allows for a consumer incentive (compensation) to recycle their goods (clean and uncontaminated) and for companies to in turn utilize them for the production of other goods. It’s a win-win situation; Consumers are more inclined to reduce their single use material consumption, local recycling facilities amplify jobs and the economy, and most importantly pollution is reduced by up to 90% promoting a healthy environment. 

The next time you take out your recycling can think of the economic, social, and environmental value of these containers. Such a simple alteration would result in a exceedingly sustainable outlook for us Virginians. Please consider signing our petition here to alert your Virginia representatives that you support a Bottle Bill!