The Changing Commodity Mix

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July-August 2017

The recycling industry’s roster of scrap commodities has evolved significantly over the decades, and ISRI has adapted to the changes throughout its 30-year history.

By Kent Kiser

Nothing endures but change.

Paper_Graphic-for-30th-Anniversary-ArticleThat quote from Greek philosopher Heraclitus applies perfectly to the ever-shifting spectrum of scrap commodities. In the early 1900s, for instance, scrap dealers handled still-familiar materials such as ferrous and nonferrous metals, paper, glass, and rubber, but they also dealt in now-esoteric items such as beeswax, gunny bagging, bones, human and animal hair, crepe soling, hides, and furs. As the 20th century progressed, many of those “primitive” commodities faded due to the substitution of new materials in manufactured products, advances in technology and manufacturing, and recyclers’ pursuit of newer, more sophisticated markets. As those scrap materials disappeared, others took their place, including high-tech aerospace alloys, new paper grades such as computer printout, and platinum-group metals from newfangled products such as catalytic converters. The rapid growth of curbside collection programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s introduced new commodity streams, such as PET and HDPE plastic bottles, and increased the available volume of traditional commodities like old newspapers and old corrugated containers. Plus, since ISRI’s founding in 1987, some old markets—such as scrap tires—have found new life, while entirely new recycling sectors have sprouted up to address the specialized needs of products such as electronics and composites. Given the constantly changing nature of scrap commodities, it’s no surprise ISRI has seen the roster of recyclables it represents shift and expand considerably in its 30-year history.

A Voice for All Commodities

To understand ISRI’s commodity picture, it helps to know the scrap roots of its predecessors, the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel and the National Association of Recycling Industries, which merged in 1987 to form ISRI.

ISIS and NARI had several reasons to merge, and chief among them was the desire to encompass all scrap commodities in a single association to give the industry a unified voice. NARI was the scrap industry’s first official association, beginning life in 1913 as the National Association of Waste Material Dealers and representing dealers who handled everything from metals to paper to woolen rags and rubber inner tubes. ISIS came along in 1928 to give iron and steel recyclers their own organization to fight specialized challenges such as direct dealing, a practice in which steel mills bought scrap directly from suppliers, bypassing scrap dealers. In the 49 years from 1928 to 1987, the scrap industry and its commodity sectors were divided between the two associations. By 1987, that divide had become untenable. Numerous recycling companies were members of both associations to cover their diverse commodity interests, and they viewed those dual expenses as duplicative and wasteful. Equally important, the legislative and regulatory demands of the time made it imperative for the scrap industry to speak with a single, powerful voice.

The ISIS-NARI merger to form ISRI “really broadened our base,” Richard Abrams of B. Abrams & Sons (Harrisburg, Pa.), ISRI’s first elected president, said in 1988. “Now when we go out and talk with government about recycling, we speak for the entire industry—ferrous and nonferrous scrap processors, processors of paper, textiles, glass, plastics, and other nonmetallic scrap products, and many consumers as well.”

That larger commodity umbrella continued to broaden after 1987 as underdeveloped commodity sectors—such as plastics and scrap tires—gained momentum and as entirely new sectors—such as electronics recycling—emerged.

The Paper—and Plastic—Chase

Even though paper is one of the oldest recycled materials, it was a novel commodity to most ISIS members when they joined with their NARI counterparts to create ISRI. Paper certainly was new to Herschel Cutler, the former ISIS executive director who took the same position in the newly formed ISRI. “After the merger, paper was a new commodity to most of us on the ISRI staff, and I think the paper stock members were reasonably concerned because their business was not well understood,” he says. The association staff faced a learning curve regarding ISRI’s paper-focused members and their needs, and former ISIS members had to adjust to the idea that their association was no longer exclusively a metal recycling organization. As Cutler recalls, the paper recycling members “spent a lot of time with me personally and with the staff to make sure we understood what it was we now represented and how we could promote and protect their niche better.”

Fortunately, ISRI and its staff were fast learners. In addition to establishing a Nonmetallics Division right away, the association made the Paper Stock Institute of America—a former NARI group—the Paper Stock Industries Chapter at the end of 1990. PSI was ISRI’s first national chapter, and it became one of the association’s most active chapters, holding biannual meetings—some with mini expos and themed social functions—and tapping the expertise of members on matters from paper specifications to trade. PSI members put scrap paper on an equal footing with metal commodities in the association and even offered workshops at the annual ISRI convention to help metal recyclers consider diversifying into paper recycling.

Plastic was the next material to gain prominence in ISRI. By the late 1980s, U.S. plastics manufacturers consumed approximately 59 billion pounds of resin annually, but plastic recycling was virtually nonexistent, especially for consumer products such as plastic bottles and other packaging. Recyclers saw that situation as a massive market opportunity, and ISRI picked up on their interest. Its first plastics-focused event—a combined Plastics Seminar and Plastics Roundtable in September 1990—drew more than 200 attendees. Co-moderator Marty Forman of Forman Metal Co. (Milwaukee) asserted that “the time for wholesale landfilling of plastic scrap in this country is past,” telling scrap recyclers they had “absolutely the right skills and experience” to succeed in plastic recycling. Then-ISRI President David Serls of Colonial Metals Co. (Columbia, Pa.) and L. Lavetan & Sons (York, Pa.) called the gathering a “historic event” and announced ISRI’s interest in elevating its newly formed ad hoc Plastics Committee to full-fledged committee status.

The ISRI board did just that in October 1990, naming Forman the group’s first chair and tasking the group with organizing another plastics roundtable in 1991 and developing plastic scrap specifications. By the time ISRI published its Scrap Specifications Circular in late 1991, the document contained specifications for 27 types of scrap plastics.

Over the years, ISRI steadily has educated and informed members about the plastic recycling market through seminars and workshops at events such as the Commodities Roundtable Forum and the annual convention. When the ISRI board established a new Plastics Recycling Council in 2008, the association took its plastic recycling educational efforts to the next level. What began as a three-workshop track on plastic recycling at the 2009 convention grew into the ISRI Plastics Business & Operations Summit at the 2016 convention, offering three full days of workshops covering plastics identification, operations, and plastic separation systems. ISRI repeated that summit at its 2017 convention, offering a 10-workshop event specifically for plastic recyclers and those interested in the market.

As plastics continued to gain prominence in ISRI’s commodity mix, the ISRI board voted in 2013 to turn the Plastics Recycling Council into the Plastics Division, giving ISRI’s plastic recycling members a stronger voice on the national board. The division members didn’t waste any time jumping into substantive work, focused mainly on updating and expanding ISRI’s plastic scrap specifications. The group’s efforts yielded nine new plastic film specs in 2015 and a spec for postconsumer thermo­plastic olefin automotive bumpers in mid-2016.

The Plastics Division also forged an agreement with the Association of Plastic Recyclers (Wash­ington, D.C.) in 2014 to work jointly on certain plastic scrap specifications. In November 2016, their collaboration resulted in numerous changes to existing ISRI plastic specs as well as 10 new specs, primarily for plastic packaging such as bottles, tubs, lids, and mixed bulky rigids. “The ISRI-APR agreement has provided a great deal of clarity for many plastics packaging grades that are commonly traded,” says Jonathan Levy, ISRI’s director of member services and liaison to the Plastics Division. The division now is drafting specifications for PVC scrap, which “were nonexistent before ISRI jumped in,” he says.

Making Tracks with Tire Recycling

When ISRI began in 1987, there was very little recycling of scrap tires in the United States. An estimated 2 billion scrap tires sat in legal and illegal stockpiles, and Americans were generating roughly 240 million additional scrap tires every year.

In 1990, the Rubber Manufacturers Association (Washington, D.C.) established the Scrap Tire Management Council to tackle the U.S. scrap tire problem, and ISRI took notice. “The plight of the discarded tire has found increasing recognition in recent months, as has the need to recover scrap tires,” wrote Thomas Hemphill, then ISRI’s associate market analyst, in a 1990 Scrap article. “Of course, the key to investment in scrap tire recovery, like any other material recycling proposal, lies in the viability of long-term end markets.”

As STMC helped build such markets, ISRI began expanding its presence in the scrap tire and rubber recycling sectors. In 1990, the association formed an ad hoc Tire/Rubber Committee to examine issues related to recycling scrap tires. The group held its first meeting in December 1990, and it became a full committee at the July 1991 ISRI board meeting.

Throughout the 1990s, tire recycling gained momentum, as did ISRI’s work in the niche. From 1990 to 1992, the number of scrap tires consumed in North America increased almost threefold, jumping from 24.5 million tires to 68 million tires, STMC reported. By 2000, the U.S. tire recovery rate hovered around 70 percent, and stockpiles were diminishing steadily, proving the viability of the rubber recycling market.

As the new millennium began, ISRI made its biggest move to date in the tire recycling sector when it merged with the National Association of Scrap Tire Processors in fall 2001. Under the agreement, ISRI formed the Scrap Tire Processors Chapter—its second national chapter—and the Tire and Rubber Division, with former NASTP officers Mark Rannie of Emanuel Tire Co. (Baltimore) and Bill Vincent of Colt Inc. (Scott, La.) serving as president and chair, respectively, of those two groups.

To serve its new rubber recycling members, ISRI held its first Tire Recycling Business Summit in September 2004 in Rosemont, Ill. That two-day mini-convention offered exhibit booths, networking opportunities, and workshops organized into five tracks: finance, insurance, markets, QEH&S management programs, and U.S. EPA trends and state issues. ISRI reprised that event in 2005, providing workshops on energy, second-stage processing, disaster planning, recommended best practices, and the EPA’s Scrap Tire Work Group. ISRI also beefed up its annual convention programming to include a tire/rubber spotlight and additional workshops on topics such as rubberized asphalt, tire wire, and the use of tires and tire chips in septic fields and civil engineering applications. In addition, the early 2000s saw the development of ISRI’s first scrap tire-related specifications, with the 2005 Scrap Specifications Circular including 15 specs for tire-derived material primarily used in civil engineering applications.

ISRI has gone to battle for its rubber recycling members on critical issues, especially regarding the alleged health threats of crumb rubber infill in synthetic turf fields. ISRI monitored this potential threat from the outset, and when the issue became a full-blown controversy in 2014, it responded in force. At its fall 2015 meeting, the ISRI board approved spending up to $172,000 on a multipronged media campaign to counter erroneous reports about the purported health hazards. “The financial contribution approved by the board was much needed by our small division to defend against this existential threat,” says Kyle Eastman, vice president of crumb rubber sales and development at Liberty Tire Recycling (Pittsburgh) and chair of ISRI’s Communications Committee. “It is a credit to our board and leadership that they recognized today’s crisis is crumb rubber infill from recycled tires, but tomorrow it could be any other commodity that ISRI represents.”

In addition to lobbying at the federal government level and legislative tracking at the state level, ISRI’s campaign included communications efforts such as message development and testing, creation of the RecycledRubberFacts.org website, and an in-depth feature article on the subject in Scrap’s March/April 2016 issue. Although the rubber infill challenge continues, ISRI has been “a vital part of our defense and a valued contributor to a larger coalition of folks invested in the effort who will be here in support of our division as we pivot to advocacy around the use of recycled rubber,” Eastman says.

Connecting with Electronics

Electronics recycling is the newest large-scale scrap sector to emerge in ISRI’s 30-year history. In the late 1980s, some companies—primarily metal refiners—sought circuitboards and other electronic scrap for their precious metal content. Even then, before the personal computer boom, the writing was on the wall. “Despite the relatively low precious metal yields from electronic scrap, margins are sufficient to motivate scrap processors to think seriously about capturing even more electronic scrap,” wrote Robert J. Garino, then ISRI’s director of commodities, in Scrap in early 1989. “Even the lowest grades of scrap can prove to be an important revenue generator.”

As the 1990s progressed, other signs pointed to growing potential in this market in the United States and abroad. A 1995 Scrap article titled “Computer Recycling Ahead,” for instance, noted that “the boom in personal computing and rapid advances in computer technology have combined to produce an increasingly visible side effect of the computer age: millions of ‘old’ computers. Current recovery efforts are limited, but the future is likely to boost recycling.” The article ended with this prophetic observation: “Exactly how and when isn’t clear, but it’s a good bet that large-scale computer collection for recycling is coming.”

By 1997, companies interested in or already involved in the emerging electronics recycling market started holding events such as the Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Conference, dubbed EPR2. The International Association of Electronics Recyclers made its debut in 1999 to represent and promote the fledgling industry. By 2001, IAER reported having a database of roughly “750 companies listed as electronics recyclers or people at companies involved in electronics recycling.”

The number of e-recyclers continued growing into the new millennium, both outside and inside the ISRI membership ranks. ISRI President Robin Wiener noted in 2001 that “more than 10 percent of ISRI members are processing electronics in one form or another,” according to an ISRI survey at the time. “By working with IAER, ISRI can provide the most up-to-date information and forums for its members to help them grow in this emerging segment.” One way ISRI supported this new sector was by forming an Electronics Recycling Council in 2002. That group held its first meeting at ISRI’s 2003 convention in Orlando, Fla.

Also in 2003, ISRI helped sponsor the first electronics collection drive on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a two-day event Nov. 15–16 timed to coincide with America Recycles Day. And ISRI’s e-recycling members worked to draft the first electronics-related specifications for the Scrap Specifications Circular. The 2004 edition had seven pages of new e-scrap specs, providing definitions and covering the main metal, glass, and plastic commodities recovered from electronic scrap.

To further serve its growing number of e-recycling members, ISRI stepped up its educational offerings, including launching a five-workshop Electronics Recycling Business Summit at its 2006 annual convention. ISRI continues to offer electronics-focused programming at each of its conventions.

By 2008, e-recycling was such an integral part of ISRI’s membership that the board changed the Electronics Recycling Council to the Electronics Division. That year brought other notable developments, including ISRI’s acquisition of IAER, which helped boost its electronics membership and made it the leading association voice in the sector. This merger made sense because ISRI possessed “the resources necessary to support and sustain the activities and membership for the electronics recycling industry,” says John Powers of Integrated Solutions and Services (Wakefield, R.I.), who has been a consultant for and member of both IAER and ISRI. In addition, ISRI’s annual convention provided a “major venue” for ongoing e-recycling educational programs, he says.

In the following years, ISRI continued to promote electronics recycling and address its challenges. It hired market research firm International Data Corp. to conduct a survey on the U.S. electronics recycling industry. The survey results, released in October 2011, revealed the industry’s revenue, processing volume, employment total, and other key data that ISRI and its members could use for advocacy and other activities.

When e-recyclers faced a potential federal ban on exports of scrap electronics in 2012, ISRI leveraged its connections on Capitol Hill to dispel the threat. The same threat arose again in subsequent years, and ISRI has thwarted the effort each time, sticking to its policy of free and fair trade and its promotion of responsible electronics recycling around the world. In 2013, ISRI partnered with the Consumer Electronics Association to launch the CRT Challenge, a technical competition seeking financially viable, environmentally conscious proposals for using recycled glass from cathode-ray-tube displays.

ISRI and its electronics recycling members won a critical legislative victory in 2015 by ensuring that electronics resellers and recyclers could perform bulk unlocking of used wireless devices, based on a three-year exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. ISRI filed for an exemption to the law so recyclers could sell phones and tablets free from restrictions that tie them to a single carrier. “This win, this experience as a whole, should reinforce to us all why giving your time and energy to our association is so important,” said Jim Levine of Regency Technologies (Twinsburg, Ohio), chair of ISRI’s Electronics Division at the time. “Alone, we face greater uncertainty. Together, these types of wins for the industry are not only possible but are becoming the norm.”

Going forward, ISRI has its sights set on updating the 2010 survey on the U.S. electronics recycling industry and working with members to secure passage of right-to-repair legislation at the state and fed

The recycling industry’s roster of scrap commodities has evolved significantly over the decades, and ISRI has adapted to the changes throughout its 30-year history.

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