High-density polyethylene (HDPE) resin is produced from the chemical compound ethylene. HDPE bottles are blow-molded and used for milk and other beverages, detergents, shampoos, motor oil, drugs and cosmetic products. Most milk and water bottles use a colorless HDPE resin. Bottles used for other products often have colorants added to the resin.

Injection-molded HPDE containers are used for products such as margarine and yogurt. More HDPE bottles are produced than containers. HDPE resin can also be used to make bottle and container caps and flexible packaging such as sacks and trash bags. HDPE is also used in many non-packaging products.

Bottles and containers comprise 54 percent of HDPE packaging products and 39 percent of all HDPE products. HDPE bottles and containers began displacing heavier metal, glass and paper packages in the 1970s. Although the amount of HDPE used in bottles and containers has tripled since 1980, its garbage market share is still less than 1 percent.

This profile only covers HDPE bottles and containers.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail him at: cmiller@envasns.org.


HIGH DENSITY POLYETHYLENE MSW FACTS

Generated:

  • 2.23 million tons, or 0.9% by weight.

  • 0.82 million tons of milk and water bottles.

  • 1.41 million tons of containers for other products.

  • 14.78 pounds per person each year.

Recycled:

  • 470,000 tons, or a 21% recycling rate.

  • 230,000 tons of milk and water bottles, or a 28% recycling rate.

  • 240,000 tons of other bottles, or a 17% recycling rate.

  • No. 2 in the plastic resin code.

Recycled Content:

  • Varies by end product, but increasingly common in non-food containers.

Composted:

  • HDPE is not compostable.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 1.76 million tons, or 1.04% of discarded MSW by weight.

  • Highly combustible with 18,690 Btu per pound, more than three times MSW.

  • Not biodegradable in landfills.

Landfill Volume:

  • 6.3 million cubic yards in 1997.

  • 1.5% of landfilled MSW in 1997.

Density:

  • Landfilled milk jugs weigh 355 pounds per cubic yard (lbs/cy).

  • Loose milk jugs weigh 24 lbs/cy.

  • Flattened milk jugs weigh 65 lbs/cy.

  • Loose, colored HDPE bottles weigh 45 lbs/cy.

  • Bales of HDPE generally weigh 500-800 pounds.

Source Reduction:

  • "Concentrated" detergents use less HDPE than "unconcentrated."

  • An empty 1-gallon milk jug weighs less than 60 grams. In 1970, it weighed 95 grams.

Recycling Markets:

  • Packaging, drainage pipe, film, pallets, plastic lumber and exports.

End-Market Specifications:

  • ISRI Scrap Specifications Circular 2008: Baled Recycled Plastic Standard P-200 (HDPE Mixed), P-201 (HDPE Natural) or P-202 (HDPE Pigmented) for bottles only.

  • Specs allow for 2% contamination, no free liquids and UV protection.


SOURCES:

American Plastics Council, www.plasticsresource.org

"Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2007 Facts and Figures," U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 2008, www.epa.gov/osw

"Design for Recycling, A Plastic Bottle Recyclers' Perspective," Society of Plastics Industries, 1992

"Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines," National Recycling Coalition, www.nrc-recycle.org

"Scrap Specifications Circular 2008," Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, www.isri.org

Data is from 2007 EPA estimates, except where noted.