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Why Does So Much Recyclable Plastic End Up as Trash?

100 percent "recyclable" doesn't mean recycled. Meet the man who's trying to change that.

CarbonLite’s groundbreaking recycling facility.

If you toss an empty water bottle it into a recycling bin in California, particularly the southern end of the state, there’s a good chance it will end up at CarbonLite’s bottle recycling plant in Riverside, California. CarbonLite is the largest recycler of PET (polyethylene terephthalate)—also called PETE and, when recycled, rPET—in the United States, and the second-largest in the world. This top-of-the-line plant was built with $60 million in private funds and has been operating since 2012.

Chairman and founder Leon Farahnik is on a mission to extend the life of a plastic bottle in perpetuity. CarbonLite’s bottle-to-bottle, closed-loop form of recycling creates virtually endless reuse and reduces the carbon footprint of PET plastic. “Our estimates, according to the scientists, is that we [prevent] about 60,000 tons of carbon [emissions] every year by not using virgin material,” he says.

Leon Farahnik
Chairman and Founder, Carbonlite

To put the scope of plastics produced annually in perspective, Farahnik points out that “PET plastic is used to make about 100 billion pounds of products per year.” He explains, “70 billion pounds of that goes into clothing, fiber, carpets, t-shirts, toys. Thirty billion pounds goes into packaging. About 1.8 billion pounds of it gets recycled.” What isn’t recycled ends up in our landfills, he says. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, that’s about 13 percent of the 245 million tons of trash every year.

CarbonLite is more than doing its share of keeping those plastics out of landfills and waterways. The company recycles over 300,000 pounds of PET every day, or more than 10,000 pounds per hour. When the truckloads of plastic bottles come in, about 30 percent of their net weight is lost to discarded liquid, labels, caps, and other junk, and the remaining 70 percent is processed. After the plastic is washed and sterilized, it’s melted into high-quality, food-grade resin flakes or pellets that are then sold back to manufacturers like Pepsi and Nestlé to create new bottles. In fact, Arrowhead water, which is owned by Nestlé Waters, uses 50 percent recycled plastic (rPET) in its most popular California bottle sizes, and is expanding that same percentage to more bottle sizes, representing a 40 percent increase in their use of rPET overall. This sort of shift at the corporate level will, it’s hoped, inspire similar changes in other companies.

“Recycling is the only answer because you don’t want to burn a product, which adds to the pollution, and you’d be burning good material,” Farahnik says. “So the future is recycling because you don’t want it to end up in waterways, oceans, or landfills.”

Environmentally savvy consumers do their part—especially in California, which has some of the best recycling numbers of any state—by recycling plastic bottles and containers. Yet once they go into a recycling bin, these plastics do not magically turn into another plastic product; recycling is more complex than that. For one thing, all plastic is not created equal. In fact, the seven kinds of plastic vary wildly. Denoted by numbered triangles stamped into the containers, they range from the durable and highly reusable PET—the sturdy plastic that holds soda, water, shampoo, and peanut butter—to the rarely recycled polyvinyl of PVC pipes and “pleather” purses. Although many plastic items bear a numbered triangle signifying that a product can be recycled, only about 31 percent of all plastic is actually recycled in the US. This number could easily increase, however, with more recycling activity. The biggest factor driving the recyclability of any plastic is the profit that it can provide manufacturers. And as in all manufacturing, demand is driven by the consumer.

More education is needed, however; consumers are not well versed in the differences between plastics, nor is it easy to tell with a quick glance whether a bottle is made from recycled materials. The only surefire way is to find the number in the triangle at the bottom of the container. The number 1 signals highly recyclable PET, and 2 indicates the equally recyclable HDPE. Numbers 4 (low-density polyethylene) and 5 (polypropylene) are slowly gaining popularity with recycling facilities, but they still have a way to go before they’re widely recycled. While this lack of plastic familiarity is not entirely the fault of the consumer, it is the consumer who has the power to initiate change.

Farahnik stresses the need for consumers to become savvier at reading labels and asking for what they want with the power of their dollars. He says to look for phrases such as “post-consumer recycled content,” “this bottle was made from other bottles,” or similarly worded descriptions. “The consumer is the one who must say what they want in stores,” he says. “If they demand that any product we buy should have post-consumer content, then it will happen.” CarbonLite’s success has shown this to be true.

“I’m proud that we have taken the initiative and put private money into creating a good thing for the environment,” Farahnik says.

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