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Think Tank: Plastic Recycling

The U.S. plastic recycling market faces intriguing challenges—from quality concerns to terminology battles—and equally compelling possibilities. Plastic recycling expert Patty Moore tackles 10 questions on the state of the market.

The U.S. plastic recycling market faces intriguing challenges—from quality concerns to terminology battles—and equally compelling possibilities. Plastic recycling expert Patty Moore tackles 10 questions on the state of the market. 

The U.S. plastic recycling market has a little something for everyone: success stories (bottle recycling), tough cases (EPS and PVC, to name two), domestic drama (bans on plastic bags and EPS), international intrigue (China’s Green Fence initiative), emerging markets (film and nonbottle rigids), technological developments (advanced sorting, in particular), and more. It’s a dynamic sector with many moving parts, which can make it difficult to understand.

Patty Moore has made recycling her professional focus and plastic recycling her specialty ever since she started in the field in 1983 as director of the Wilton Recycling Center (Wilton, N.H.). Now the principal of Moore Recycling Associates (Sonoma, Calif.), a 12-person consulting firm, Moore has conducted numerous studies and led other projects for U.S. plastics recycling organizations such as the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council (Washington, D.C.), the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (also in Washington), and the National Association for PET Container Resources (Florence, Ky.). She also serves as executive director of the Plastic Recycling Corp. of California (Sonoma, Calif.), for which she has worked since 1993. In this, the first installment of Scrap’s new “Think Tank” feature, Moore answers 10 questions on U.S. plastic recycling trends and challenges.

The overall U.S. plastic recycling rate was about 9 percent in 2012 based on U.S. EPA figures. What are the biggest obstacles to increasing that rate? There are two points to consider here: One, the rate probably is much higher. Unlike the rates for paper and metals, the plastic recycling rate does not include industrial plastic recycling. A significant part of that category is really postcommercial material: plastic recovered from commercial operations—for example, transport packaging such as crates and single-use containers. Since that material has met its intended use, it meets the definition of postconsumer recycling, but we don’t document it as such.

Two, there are many steps that could be taken to increase the amount of plastic that’s recycled. The biggest obstacles relate to the lack of optimal infrastructure across the whole chain of collection, sorting, reclamation, and sale of the final recycled product. Quality is one challenge that affects every stage. The supply and demand balance is problematic in terms of regionalization and consistency. By that, I mean that supply is in highly populated areas, but demand often is elsewhere, in places with a lower cost of doing business. Also, supply and demand are inconsistent in terms of volume in that both can be seasonal, and their seasons don’t necessarily match.

There also are few long-term contracts in this business. Without signed supply agreements, it’s difficult for companies to invest in the needed infrastructure; and without such investment, we can’t improve the quality issues. Some folks have told me they’re willing to sign a supply agreement, but to do so they need an accurate pricing index. Unfortunately, at this time there’s no reliable index for recycled plastic. This has led to odd pricing situations, such as when postconsumer resin is priced higher than virgin resin. In the long term, I don’t believe it’s healthy for PCR to be valued higher than virgin resin, as that discourages a commitment to use PCR. Without that long-term commitment there will be no investment in infrastructure, and quality will not improve. Do you see a circle forming here? Properly funded systems lead to optimal collection, processing, and end use.

Which plastics are the success stories in terms of their recycling, which are the underperformers, and why? The undocumented recycling of postcommercial plastics is probably the true star, but for household plastics, PET and HDPE bottles have the most robust collection and processing system. Those are the products that started household plastic recycling, and they’re the first plastics that were commonly included in curbside recycling programs. In fact, a significant majority of U.S. residents have access to recycling those two plastics. They were the first because they offered enough identifiable supply—to the public and processors—to make them worth recycling; the technology existed to cost-effectively convert the supply into profitable new products; and there was enough funding to make the entire system work. PET recycling worked because deposit programs generated a clean, consistent supply; HDPE recycling succeeded because the milk jug is so visible, relatively simple to clean, and has many potential end-use markets. Ironically, these two materials also are the biggest underperformers. Given Americans’ high level of access to PET and HDPE collection opportunities, they should be recycled at much higher levels. That isn’t the case due to public confusion and apathy and an infrastructure that doesn’t always lead to their capture.

What are the greatest points of confusion and/or apathy about plastic recycling? How can those be overcome? Unfortunately, plastic recycling has grown rapidly and without a historical foundation, resulting in regional differences and differing outreach terminology. Nearly every collection program uses a unique set of words to describe which plastics it accepts. A common national—or at least regional—set of materials collected would go a long way toward reducing confusion, which leads to apathy. Another factor that leads to apathy is the small but vocal set of critics who believe recycling isn’t worthwhile. Their condemnation has added doubt and discourages people from recycling.

The use of the resin identification code—the 1 to 7 code in the recycling triangle—in consumer education also discourages people from recycling plastic products because they think they need to check every single piece to see if it has a number. Some plastic collection programs might find the RICs helpful for identifying specific resins for inclusion or exclusion, but my company’s research has determined that a significant majority of programs collect categories of plastic materials without using resin-specific details, such as “all bottles and containers.” (Visit www.recycleyourplastics.org/termsandtools for more information.)

Current industry initiatives focus on increasing the collection of plastic film, rigid plastics, and EPS, all of which have low recovery rates. Are these simply industry responses to bans or potential bans, or is there sufficient demand for these materials to warrant increased efforts to collect them? What success have these initiatives had to date? There are some successful efforts under way to increase the recovery of film, nonbottle rigid plastics, and EPS. Yes, fear of a ban or of deselection—when an individual or company decides not to use a product based on a given factor—might fuel some of these efforts, but they are substantive nonetheless.

The APR created its Rigid Plastics Recycling Program to increase the recycling rate of rigid plastics beyond bottles. Over the past four years, the group has conducted a national rigid plastics bale audit, launched a grocery store rigid plastics recovery program, and drafted model bale specifications for rigid plastics. These and other steps are removing barriers to and increasing confidence in successful recycling of nonbottle rigid plastics.

On plastic film recycling, the ACC’s Flexible Film Recycling Group developed the Wrap Recycling Action Program, or WRAP, to increase film recycling, starting in Wisconsin. Since June 2013, that program has expanded commercial access to film recycling 53 percent by area in Wisconsin, doubled the number of Wisconsin-based recyclers listed in the Film Recycler Directory on www.plasticfilmrecycling.org, increased the number of Wisconsin drop-off locations listed in the Film Recycler Directory by 88 percent, launched three commercial pilot programs, and advanced two awareness campaigns to pre-launch mode. Approximately 85 percent of Wiscon­sin’s population now has access to film recycling.

On the national level, the group is working with Simon Property Group (Indianapolis) to grow film recycling at malls and has partnered with three major retail chains to conduct pilots to test WRAP signage. The goal is to double film recycling from the current 1 billion pounds a year to 2 billion pounds by 2020. (For a variety of tools for promoting film recycling, visit www.plasticfilmrecycling.org.)

Regarding EPS, Dart Container Corp. (Mason, Mich.) has made an almost single-handed effort to increase recycling of that material. In 2012 it recycled more than 1.5 million pounds of postconsumer EPS. That company helped develop new technology that reduced the labor required to recycle EPS in MRFs, reducing the footprint required to install the equipment and allowing mixed densities of foam in the same stream. As a result, Dart is helping to make EPS recycling more efficient and breaking down barriers against including EPS in curbside collection programs.

Are bans on plastic products such as EPS and plastic bags detrimental to efforts to increase the recycling of those materials? Why or why not? Certainly they are detrimental. Bag bans, for instance, can reduce the number of retailer locations that accept bags, wraps, and film for recycling. Without those retail drop-offs, where will residents recycle all the overwrap on cases of toilet paper and water bottles, not to mention bags from dry cleaning, bread, and newspapers? This is even more important since bags, wraps, and film in curbside collections pose problems for MRFs—particularly by wrapping around the paper-sorting equipment—and the low quality of the recovered film makes it difficult to sell.

EPS bans likewise reduce the potential volume of material that can be recycled. As with plastic film, there are EPS materials we need to get recycled that are not part of the bans, such as protective packaging around electronics products and other large consumer goods.

ISRI members are increasingly concerned about municipal collections in a one-bin system where the waste—and contaminated recyclables—might be burned for fuel. Is burning plastics for fuel a complement to recycling, or does it compete with recycling? It’s a well-founded concern. To finance the cost of a waste-to-energy plant, communities often are asked to sign “put-or-pay” contracts in which they must provide a minimum amount of waste each day, week, or month. Such contracts definitely discourage recycling, especially since the amount of waste each American generates each year is dropping. In addition, the volume and types of materials we can cost-effectively recycle continue to grow. Both of these trends make it difficult to correctly size a waste-to-energy plant. Collecting recyclables and nonrecyclables together creates further disincentives to recycling—most notably paper recycling—due to contamination that adds significant cost to recovery systems, making recycling appear less financially desirable. That said, I believe there’s a place for energy recovery as one of the waste management tools; it just has to be carefully managed as a complement rather than competition to recycling.

Plastics packaging design that does not consider recycling has created a variety of problems for the industry. What can be done to make Design for Recycling® a bigger part of the packaging design process? There’s an unfortunate disconnect between the desire to recycle and the desire to sell more products. It boils down to a need to educate product and package designers about what works—and what doesn’t work—for recycling. In addition, retailers need to continue to put pressure on their suppliers to provide products that are designed for recycling and that contain postconsumer resin.

Beyond packaging design, what do plastics recyclers say are other challenges to their ongoing success? Bale quality is an ongoing issue. The fact that there’s far more demand than supply for most recycled plastic commodities has led to a reduction in quality. China’s Green Fence initiative last year focused greater attention on quality, but as long as MRF operators have buyers willing to purchase bales with contamination, we’re unlikely to see dramatic change. Quality is especially problematic for mixed-resin rigid bales because of the lack of a definition for that product and lack of consistency. Ratios of plastic types can change dramatically from supplier to supplier and even over time from the same supplier. This makes it very hard to design a system to handle the material and makes it difficult to properly value such bales. My company has noted a trend in which higher-quality materials garner a better price, but MRF operators need to weigh the higher selling price against their costs to generate higher-quality bales and the cost of handling and disposing of the residual material culled from those bales.

Reclaimers also complain that their customers expect significant, unrealistic cost savings when they buy PCR compared with virgin resin and have challenging requirements for light-color recycled resin, which adds sorting and processing costs for reclaimers and leaves them with concentrated streams of dark plastics with a lower value, which can be more difficult to sell. Plus, reclaimers and MRFs note that plastic processing equipment to date has been designed to recover plastic bottles, which doesn’t always work successfully to sort and process the growing stream of nonbottle material.

China’s Green Fence initiative in 2013 focused a light on the quality of exported recovered plastics. What were the pros and cons of that initiative for the U.S. plastics recycling industry? As noted, Green Fence helped raise awareness about the issue of quality. The quality requirements China imposed accelerated the trend away from exports and toward domestic markets for U.S. scrap plastics. Although it was difficult and costly for MRFs to adjust their processes to improve quality, on the whole most people in the recycling industry agree that Green Fence was an important wake-up call.

Nine European countries already ban the landfilling of postconsumer plastics and recover more than 90 percent of the material for recycling or energy. Can the United States hope to achieve a high plastic recycling rate without some sort of landfill ban, EPR scheme, or national bottle bill? The United States can’t expect to achieve high recycling rates without substantive public policy initiatives. Recycling is a national priority in every part of the world that has high recycling rates. As a start, recycling should be mandatory and harmonized across jurisdictions.