Third Quarter Data Suggests More Plastics Recycling in the U.S.

December 12, 2023

Perc Pineda, PhD
Chief Economist

The Plastics Industry Association regularly compiles comprehensive trade data on recyclable plastics materials, specifically the Recyclable Plastics Materials Quarterly Trade Statistics, produced for the PLASTICS Recycling Committee. These statistics, updated quarterly based on data from the U.S. International Trade Commission, serve as a valuable resource for understanding the utilization of recycled plastics within the United States.

Within the realm of recyclable plastics materials, the sheer volume of trade, in millions of kilograms, offers a more accurate depiction of the actual exchange between the U.S. and its trading partners. While acknowledging the significance of the dollar value in trade, it’s essential to recognize that inflationary impacts can potentially distort the overall trade figures.

U.S. a net importer of recycled plastics in the third quarter

Examining the third-quarter trade data on recyclable plastics materials unveils several noteworthy trends within the U.S. plastics industry. The sector has notably amplified its recycling efforts and augmented its importation of recyclable plastics materials. Remarkably, the U.S. was a net importer of recyclable plastics materials: 14.7 million kilograms (kgs) equivalent to $15.6 million.

Comparing figures, third-quarter exports of recyclable plastics materials totaled 102.1 million kgs, reflecting a 5.9% decline from the second quarter and a 2.8% drop from the previous year. Conversely, imports surged to 116.8 million kgs in the third quarter, indicating an 8.5% increase from the preceding quarter and a 5.2% rise from the third quarter of 2022.

Declining exports and imports over time

Reviewing year-to-date data until September, U.S. exports totaled 317.1 million kgs, closely aligned with imports at 316.7 million kgs, depicting a nearly balanced trade scenario in recyclable plastics materials.

The trajectory of U.S. exports in this sector has witnessed a significant decline. Notably, from exporting 2.3 billion kgs in 2014 to a substantial drop to 436.3 million kgs last year, marking a staggering 79.9% decrease. Year-to-date until September, exports declined by 6.3%, paralleled by a 7.4% decrease in imports.

A note on China

Since China implemented an import ban on recyclable plastic materials in 2018, U.S. exports to China have sharply declined. From 47.9 million kgs in 2018, they plummeted to 1.8 million kgs by 2022. Year-to-date (YTD) figures until September reveal a further 1.6% drop to 1.2 million kgs compared to the same period last year. This translates to a significant 31.2% decrease in dollar value.

Contrastingly, China’s exports of recyclable plastic materials surged by 6.6% to 5.5 million kgs over the same period. Despite a marginal decrease of 0.7% in Customs value—from $3.29 million YTD September 2022 to $3.27 million YTD September 2023—China’s export volumes remained relatively steady.

Consequently, the U.S. faces a substantial trade deficit with China in recyclable plastic materials, amounting to 4.3 million kgs YTD September 2023. In terms of dollar value, this accounts for a trade deficit of $2.4 million.

Unveiling insights through data

As trade volumes witness notable shifts—marked by significant increases in imports and concurrent declines in exports within the U.S., coupled with its trade deficit with China—the evolving landscape of recyclable plastics materials becomes increasingly apparent. The Plastics Industry Association’s dedication to providing the Recyclable Plastics Materials Quarterly Trade Statistics, a collaborative effort for the PLASTICS Recycling Committee and members, offers crucial insights into the utilization of recycled plastics within the U.S. market. PLASTICS members can download the quarterly trade statistics here.