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Recycling // Plastics

What Are Eco-Friendly Plastics and How Are They Recycled?

Recognizing the environmental detriment of petroleum-based plastics, companies are switching over to eco-friendly plastics. But how are they recycled?

RoadRunner | December 14, 2023


Our society’s relationship with plastic is complicated. Over 100 years, the man-made, petroleum-based polymer has gone from miracle material to environmental villain.

The status quo for decades, a recent shifting in consumer preference, advancement in materials sciences and legislation protecting the Earth have given rise to a world of “eco-friendly” plastics. From packaging to the products themselves, bio-based, biodegradable and recycled materials are finding purchase.

While considered an exciting and positive development by most, the recycling process for these products isn’t as simple as “green means go.” With new, sustainable materials come new rules for recycling—and you’ll need to learn them fast. 

Conventional Plastics vs. The World

Since plastic first hit the mainstream in the 1950s, the world has produced over 8.3 billion metric tons of it. And because plastic is engineered not to break down, the great majority of it is still around today.

A 2022 study from the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that 86% of plastic waste is sent to landfills, 9% is incinerated to produce power and only 5% is recycled.

Astoundingly, some suggest this number will double by 2050, ballooning to 756 million metric tons per year.

However, this forecast could be drastically affected by a rather dynamic variable: Human conscience. 

Making inroads on the traditional petrochemical plastic industry, the biodegradable or “eco-friendly” plastic market hit $3.27 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow 9.4% YoY, effectively doubling by 2027. This could be accelerated even further by legislation and government mandates that restrict the production and usage of virgin plastics, as well as consumer attitudes toward more sustainable alternatives.

[Here is how RoadRunner's RecycleMORE™ program can work for your business]

What Are Eco-Friendly Plastics?

Sensing the souring of consumers on freshly pressed petrochemical plastics, companies around the planet are shifting their products and packaging to a host of “eco-friendly” plastics. But what does that phrase mean?

By definition, eco-friendly plastics refer to a group of engineered polymers designed to break down or be recycled in a circular fashion. Generally, this group breaks out into three categories: bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and recycled plastics.


Bioplastics are a family of polymers created with renewable resources and capable of breaking down naturally. Bio-based (also known as “plant-based”) plastics include starch-based material derived from potatoes or corn, polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) and innovative new materials like Notpla, a solution made from seaweed.

One of these in particular, PLA (derived from corn), is rapidly gaining acceptance with producers. This material only uses one-third of the energy to produce compared to traditional plastics, emits 70% less greenhouse gasses when degrading in landfill and reduces overall emissions by 25% or more.

Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable plastics are a class of plastics made either partially or completely from non-renewable petroleum containing chemical additives that cause them to decompose more rapidly in the presence of light, oxygen, moisture and/or heat.

Polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and polybutylene succinate (PBS) are petroleum-based materials used in product packaging, films and in some cases, as liners for paper cups. Overall, they’re viewed as more environmentally friendly than the traditional numbered seven.

Recycled Plastics

Recycled plastics are materials created using varying percentages of post-consumer petroleum-based plastics. These materials can be circular—such as a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle returning as an rPET bottle. Or, they can be downcycled—such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene) grocery bags becoming deck planking or park benches.

Recycled plastic products, like other traditional plastics, aren’t recognized as biodegradable. However, understanding the glut of virgin plastics that reach US landfills each year (27 million tons), many companies have voluntarily chosen to boost percentages of recycled content used for new products in order to reduce their footprints.

How to Recycle Eco-Friendly Plastics

Americans aren’t spectacular plastic recyclers already. With a national plastic recycling rate around 8.7% and 62% of Americans believing that lack of knowledge is causing them to recycle incorrectly, the recovery of the conventional numbered plastics has been an uphill battle.

[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watchers blog: How to Read Plastic Recycling Symbols]

Unfortunately, things are becoming more complicated. The fast entrance of eco-friendly plastics has led to shortfalls in process for the recycling industry and new rules to learn for consumers. Why? Because most eco-friendly plastics cannot be recycled through the same avenues as traditional plastics. 

Simplified: Bioplastics can’t go in your recycling bin with virgin and recycled plastics.

End-of-life solutions for bioplastics and biodegradable plastics 

Bioplastics like PLA and biodegradable petroleum-based plastics like PBS are meant to be 1:1 replacements for traditional plastics, and that means there’s a significant and growing problem with proper disposal because they look so much alike. A PLA bottle is considered a contaminant to a load of PET bottles because the bio-based material weakens the chemical structure of the other polymer, degrading the overall resale value.

When not sent to landfill (a major area of concern), bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are routed to industrial composting centers, chemical recycling plants and anaerobic digesters. And while infrastructure is improving in leaps and bounds, the end-of-life handling of eco-friendly plastics is still in its infancy.

Therefore, it’s important to work with an expert in fully-managed waste services that can handle a variety of recycling needs.

RoadRunner provides tech-enhanced, fully-managed waste management and recycling services across 12,000+ locations, covering all industries and all business sizes, nationwide. We'll consolidate and streamline waste management services for all of your locations to deliver better service and increased recycling for less than you're paying today.




Let's get the conversation started on how to drive recycling and cost savings for your business.