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Major Industry Takeaways from the Plastics Recycling Conference

Resource Recycling held its annual Plastics Recycling Conference this week (February 19 – 21) and throughout the show, there were three things that seemed to be on the mind of attendees - improving quality, contamination as a safety issue and, finding new outlets for materials since China has stopped imports of plastic materials.

On the first topic, improving quality, it looks like the industry is making major investments in technology capable in producing cleaner quality materials. Exhibitors expressed great optimism based on anecdotal reports of increased orders of optical and other sensory equipment. It will be interesting to see how these investments change the industry. Companies that are making these investments are looking long term and are serious in producing higher quality bales. This higher quality will ripple throughout the supply chain and consumers who have expressed their frustrations on the poor quality they have received over the years may finally have their prayers answered. In the keynote session at the Conference, there were comments that expressed that increased investments in technology will cause their processing costs to increase. This in turn may cause the final product, while of higher quality to cost more to end customers. This makes sense as the industry will need to recoup the capital investment somehow. Recycling is no different than any other industry and paying for a quality product will typically cost more.

On a related note, the industry should start to think of contamination as a safety issue. Educating the public about what belongs in the bin and what doesn’t needs to be addressed. The industry should make investments in education and develop tools and resources for municipalities to explain how contamination can lead to major hazards. A case in point is that MRFs are experiencing more and more fires at their facilities as a largely uneducated public is throwing away items that contain lithium ion batteries. These batteries are easily combustible. Cleaning the stream and reducing the types of contaminants that are being thrown into the curbside bin will make processing materials easier and safer. For its part, ISRI is working with National Waste and Recycling Association and other stakeholders on developing messaging and other resources to provide solutions to this problem. ISRI is only one voice and we need everyone to educate the public about keeping items out of the bin that don’t belong there like batteries (and plastic bags – more on that in a minute). History has shown that educating the public about recycling and providing them the right information helps reduce contamination.

Finally, China was a big topic of conversation. This issue has been extensively covered by ISRI the trade press and other stakeholders and any recycler that regularly exports materials to China is well acquainted with the import ban. Conversations centered not on the ban itself, but how does the industry adjust in the wake of this situation. Many of these recyclers will be working with more domestic processors and will be looking for new outlets in the U.S. Others, by contrast are looking for new ports in Southeast Asia. In fact, according to figures supplied by ISRI, we’re already starting to see in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam seeing dramatic increases in the number of imports of scrap plastic. The danger, long term here is what happens if these governments crackdown like China has already done? What to exporters do then? And with that we come full circle to the first topic in this article, which is quality. Producing cleaner and higher quality materials will give recyclers more options to market their materials.

Does It Really Belong in the Bin?
In one of the sessions, “Brand Owner Perspectives on PCR” was a session which can be likened to “A Tale of Two Cities” in which there were two totally different perspectives on how brand owners plan on working with the recycling industry. One of the speakers on stage, from the S.C. Johnson Company, had a presentation whose title said it all “Its Far Past Time for Curbside Plastic Film Recycling.” ISRI’s position on plastic bags being put in the bin is very clear. According to ISRI’s Position on Bans and Fees or Recyclable Paper and Plastic Bags states ISRI “Opposes the addition of plastic bags to curbside collection programs. Should material be placed in a curbside bin, the material will become contaminated and its ability to be recycled reduced or eliminated” what this means is that plastic bags should be collected through retail takeback programs. MRF film is, as I understand it, a very low quality material that is dirty, has odor problems and leads to causes many, many hours of maintenance and downtime for operational equipment. The speaker seemed to convey that since technology exists to wash and sort the material, and that since there are markets for it, there is no reason to not have it in the bin. From one perspective the speaker is right, the technology exists and there are markets for it, but the question is, can a small MRF afford the investment? What happens to this MRF if the locality adds it to their program based on information coming not from the recycling community but from a brand owner that believes this is the way to go? Not all MRFs have the resources or finances to upgrade to the latest and greatest technology. For its part ISRI is interested in finding broad based solutions and through its MRF Council is talking to other stakeholders in the industry to figure out the best way forward. Pushing the problem downstream to have others implement a solution derived by someone else may be a strategy to implement this particular solution, I’m just not sure the MRF industry is on board with it.

In contrast, the speakers from Coca Cola and Seventh Generation seemed to take a different approach. Their approach is one of collaboration and commitment and to accept some of the responsibility to ensure the plastic products they sell are recyclable. From both of these speakers their presentations centered on commitments to using more PCR (in some cases 100% PCR) and embracing solutions developed by the recycling industry, such as APR’s Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability. These steps go a long way in helping to ensure plastic products are recyclable and can help to sustain the industry. 

by Jonathan Levy, Staff Liaison for ISRI’s Plastics Division

Plastics Beat

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