"This is going to be a great year, starting today," declared Steve Russell, VP of the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) plastics division. "The reason for my optimism is that access to recycling has either reached or is about to reach a place where companies can put 'recyclable' on more packages."
Russell, along with Bill Carteaux, president and CEO of the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI); Sharon Kneiss, president and CEO of the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA) kicked off the conference and exhibition with a panel discussion moderated by Jerry Powell, executive editor of Resource Recycling, which also organizes the event.
Russell was referring to news delivered at the event that some common PET and HDPE packages could now be labeled recyclable with PP close behind. Kneiss and Russell both cited a shift in the public's mindset regarding recycling as a key reason to feel good about where the sector is headed.
"Clearly, the U.S. has adopted recycling as a cultural value," Kneiss said. "It is a value not just a job. People realize how plastics can impact their lives in a positive way, and they want more access to recycling."
"We're at a unique place where we're about to make recycling not only a cultural norm but a profitable business," Russell said, adding that equipment improvements in optical scanning and stereovision systems, among others, could make mass single-stream recycling more viable.
"The advances in technology are absolutely amazing," Russell said, "and they are continuing."
Carteaux, whose group has promoted more responsible handling of plastics by the processing community through initiatives like Operation Clean Sweep (OCS), said he'd been surprised by the amount of post industrial recycling going on the in the plastics industry.
"[SPI] wants to capture the data on post industrial recycling," Carteaux said, "and make sure the industry gets credit for it." Carteaux noted that a large number of processors that formerly landfilled scrap and now reclaiming it, and saving money in the process.
In 2012, SPI added the goal of "zero waste" to its mission statement and more recently hired Kim Holmes as director of recycling. "[Holmes'] first job is to create a matrix of data gathering on current industry plastics recycling efforts and do a gap analysis," Carteaux said, "so we don't duplicate plastics recycling efforts."
Marine litter menace remains
Panel members did acknowledge one current issue that could derail plastics and, subsequently, plastics recycling: marine litter.
"[Marine litter] is one issue that keeps me up at night," Russell said. "It is undeniable that the oceans are the place where our improperly disposed waste goes." Given that, Russell also acknowledged that the current push to ban various plastic packaging items, ranging from bags to bottles to foam, will not address the issue either. "We're not going to ban our way to a cleaner ocean," Russell said.
Carteaux said the industry is tackling the issue, in part, through the OCS program, noting that 11 countries have now signed on, with the latest added the week before the conference.
"The great thing about plastics is they're lightweight and durable; the bad thing about plastics is they're lightweight and durable," Carteaux quipped, before noting that, "If you touch a pellet, you should be part of OCS."
Plastics equipment companies tap into recycling's growth
Among the event's 145 exhibitors, there were multiple companies participating for the first time. One such firm was Hosokawa Polymer Systems (New Berlin, CT) a manufacturer of granulators, pulverizers and auxiliary equipment. Hosokawa's Doug Ort told PlasticsToday that currently his company is seeing a huge level of interest in wire/cable recycling, driven by increases in the prices of scrap copper and aluminum. Companies that reclaim the metals then use wire jacketing scrap as a filler. Developments like this reflect a broader shift in the market, according to Ort. Right now, his company's business is split 50:50 between post consumer and post industrial clients, when in the past it had been 95% post-consumer driven.
PTi was another first-time exhibitor, promoting its HVTSE for processing PET scrap into sheet without crystallizing and drying the material. PTi's Sushant Jain told PlasticsToday the HVTSE process can offer energy savings of 30%. At this time, there are four systems running in North America, with another three currently under construction. One system is in Mexico, purchased by SITE Plastics out of Guadalajara, the rest are in the U.S. Globally, Jain said there are more than 90 of the systems running, with the rest sold by Italian extrusion equipment supplier Bandera. As part of an exclusive North American distribution deal reached in 2010, PTi imports the extruder from Bandera, but makes all the controls and downstream equipment for the HVTSE system itself. Jain added that recycling, and the use of the HVTSE in it, is a strong growth market for PTi.
The green fence
By volume the America's biggest export is scrap and the market has doubled since 2006, driven by its No. 1 customer, China. Those figures from Hamilton Wen who works with the export broker, Newport CH International. Wen said his company ships about 1.7 million tonnes/yr or about 7000 containers/month of scrap, mostly to China, but could that be changing?
China's new premier, Xi Jinling, has erected a "Green Fence", which amounts to a new central government policy to regulate scrap imports. Wen noted that the initiative will mostly enforce laws that are already on the books but whose enforcement was lax, at best.
"In the past, if you baled, [China would] take it," Wen said. "No more, now they fully inspect shipments."
In the past, China's seemingly insatiable thirst for scrap was driven by two factors: the need for materials and readily available cheap labor to sort bales largely by hand. Over the last five years, however, Wen said that labor costs have doubled in China and subsequently, some mills have moved to cheaper locales in Southeast Asia. Once processed, he scrap, however, still heads to China, which continues to drive the market.
China is largest consumer of plastics recyclable in the world, importing 833 million tonnes in 2011, according to Wen. Chinese demand for plastics scrap has exceeded supply for a decades, with 40% of the scrap consumed in China imported, and the remaining 60% collected domestically.
A growing market, a growing show
According to Resource Recycling Inc. (Portland, OR), which organizes the event, total attendance in 2013 came in at 1430, up 49.6% from 2010 (956). The number of exhibitors over the same time period grew by 28.3% from 113 to 145. The mix of attendees and exhibitors is increasingly international as well, with more than 30 countries represented at the event.
"In terms of topics that are particularly strong as ongoing concerns," de Thomas said, "China and resin markets have always been strong draws and continue to be."