It’s one thing to say that “more collection and better sorting” will provide a solution to ridding the environment of plastic waste and putting more recyclate into the resin stream (rPET in particular), but getting the PET bottles and other single-use packaging waste into the recycling stream remains the most difficult part of achieving these goals. Collection, sorting and cleaning the waste to make it fit for recycling is labor and energy intensive. At the end of the day, how much have we actually accomplished in terms of reducing the carbon footprint, the ultimate goal of this whole effort?
Sustainability as a market driver
A study by IHS Markit Chemical and Energy sector in that research company’s 2018 Issue 3 newsletter noted that sustainability is a “critical plastics market driver.” According to Nick Vafiadis, Vice President, Plastics, IHS Markit, “A clear shift is developing the approach toward sustainability, as the movement transitions from reactive to proactive mode.” Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was cited in the study as one of the proactive approaches to increase the circularity of plastics. EPR “levies fees on packaging . . . that are paid by manufacturers,” explained Vafiadis. “These fees are used to develop recycling infrastructure and encourage the recycling of content. EPR policies are currently either in effect or targeted for near-term implementation in Europe, North America, China and India. Presently there are no packaging EPR programs in effect in the U.S., although we expect to see programs adopted by 2025.”
The ACC noted that it intends “to further enhance plastic pellet stewardship by 2022,” which is also good. Resin producers and processors are doing a much better job of controlling resin pellets and keeping them out of the environment.
Levying fees on producers, as I see it, is only the beginning. We still need people to accept responsibility for getting their plastic bottles and other single-use packaging into the recycling stream. However, that must be easy and convenient, which might mean moving toward alternatives to sorting and cleaning the collected plastic waste which is not very energy efficient or “green.”
According to IHS Markit, “only about 4% of the plastic packaging used globally is ultimately delivered to recycling plants, while a third is left in various ecosystems, and 40% ends up in landfill.”
The challenge, as noted above, involves humans and their handling of the single-use plastic bottles and other containers once the product has been consumed. There is also issue of the quality/cleanliness of the recyclate. Even U.S. cities that have good recycling infrastructure, including curbside pick-up, sorting and baling, send a large percentage of the materials that are recyclable to the landfill.
If recycling systems are not a viable option for many cities or even developing countries, what about waste-to-energy (WTE) or plastic-to-fuel? The value of plastic does not lie just in its ability to be recycled into other plastic products, but also in its inherent energy content. Many developing countries could use greater energy production and I can foresee the mountains of discarded plastic being an excellent source of energy. It also simplifies the process by allowing co-mingling of all types of plastics (the greatest value) along with other waste materials. That is something that consumers also want—simplification in the identification and sorting process—which WTE addresses.
Plastics that are considered “trash” (#3 to #7 bales) can also be taken to companies that provide plastic-to-fuel processing, according to Mike Dungan, Director of Sales and Marketing for RES Polyflow LLC. Its patented plastics-to-fuel process complements current recycling efforts by converting low-value, co-mingled plastic waste, such as film and flexible packaging, into marketable petroleum blend stocks like fuels and wax. Dungan noted that RES Polyflow is getting a “high degree of cooperation and interest” in its process, “since plastic-to-fuel creates a new market for the residual plastics generated by a typical material recycling facility (non 1s and 2s),” he told PlasticsToday. “They generally consider a #3 to #7 bale to be trash,” he commented. “We see it as a bar of gold, chock full of hydrocarbons that can be repurposed efficiently. We don’t combust or incinerate, and we accept a broad range of somewhat contaminated material, and we produce feedstocks for other processes.” (Read "Brightmark Energy announces major investment in nation’s first commercial-scale plastics-to-fuel plant" for more on this.)
Sustainability in 2019
Aggressive policies to regulate the use of single-use plastic packaging and bottles—even outright bans—are likely to be in the industry's future. IHS Markit’s Vafiadis notes that these moves will create “significant investment risk and market uncertainty. This is especially significant for plastics producers, processors and consumer packaging companies that must invest now for the future.”
Resolving the issue of plastic waste in the environment isn’t easy and there’s no silver bullet. Blaming the material and banning it from use only results in alternatives that do not provide high levels of food safety, shelf life and convenience, not to mention that plastics are more economical and eco-friendly to produce and maintain their high value after their useful life through recycling, waste-to-energy and plastics-to-fuel technologies. You can’t say that about many of the alternatives such as paper, coated paperboard or even bio-plastics that claim compostability or degradability.
Plastics will never disappear—these materials were intended to be durable and lightweight and they provide cost-effective benefits to consumers. A number of years ago I heard a presentation at an SPE meeting. The processor who was talking encouraged attendees to “define the customer’s needs and required performance for their packaging. Compare options. Some customers say they want “fluff” (good PR or even green-washing), so they can say they’re ‘green.’ Others want to see true sustainability,” said the speaker. “Focus on direct, quantifiable benefits, i.e. cost, properties and performance. Evaluate end-of-life considerations. There are too many assumptions about what happens at the end of life to make any broad claims. Not all solutions are viable.”