Quantitative Analysis of Plastic Recycling in New York City

Objective

Based on a quantitative analysis of the current status (and shortcomings) of the plastic recycling industry in New York City, propose a system that could more sustainably manage the City’s waste plastic stream.

Background

There is significant confusion regarding recycling, especially for plastics.  There are many purported recycling programs that collect plastic items, but do not necessarily ensure that all that is collected is actually recycled into new products.  This sets the stage for confusion between plastics that are collected for recycling,  i.e. “collection”,  and true recycling. 

Furthermore, certain plastics and plastic resins (essentially, the base material for most plastics) are not currently suitable for recycling, due to a variety of factors: the manner in which the plastic item has been assembled; the lack of viable markets; etc. This state of affairs has led to the argument that some plastics should be banned, or that certain plastic products should be designed and produced so as to ensure that their recycling will be possible when they reach the end of their initially intended purpose.

The goal of this capstone project will be to quantitatively determine the types and amounts of recycling that occur for the different plastic resins—which are labelled with acronyms such as HDPE, LDPE, PP, PVC, PET, PS, etc. The overall aim is to produce a deeper and more accurate picture of the reasons—technical and economic—why some plastics achieve higher recycle rates than others.

Suggested Approaches

(i)  Background research. Gain a solid understanding of the various types of plastic resins, the ways they are produced, and the products they become part of.

(ii)  Market analysis. Research the New York City plastic recycling industry and markets. Gather sufficient data to develop a rigorous assessment of the current state of the industry and markets.

(iii)  Focus on collected amounts vs. recycled amounts. Applying material balance principles to the collected data, develop a quantitatively accurate analysis of collected plastics vs. fully recycled plastics.

(iv)  Recommendation.  Based on the findings, propose a system that could more sustainably manage the waste plastic stream in New York City.