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Plastics recycling: 
Sleeping giant’s time has come?

If Rip Van Winkle were a packaging processor who dozed off in 2000 and woke this year, his greatest shock, after material costs, likely would be the much greater significance placed on sustainability in all product development discussions. Plastics recycling stands to benefit from these discussions, and indeed already has, but obstacles remain.

If Rip Van Winkle were a packaging processor who dozed off in 2000 and woke this year, his greatest shock, after material costs, likely would be the much greater significance placed on sustainability in all product development discussions. Plastics recycling stands to benefit from these discussions, and indeed already has, but obstacles remain.

Many obstacles remain: That was the essence of two days of presentations and meetings during Plastics Recycling 2010, an annual conference held this year in Austin, TX in early March. In attendance were many representatives of brand owners and OEMs, and their interest is a good indication that resource recovery and recycling are issues that plastics processors will be facing even more in the coming years.



Deposit legislation, non-bottle recycling, better sorting, and more: There is no lack of issues to argue about in plastics recycling.
Recovery is a huge issue for plastics recyclers, all of whom said their main problem is finding a suitable supply to meet the demand. Many blame consumer ignorance. Georgina Sikorski, director of CARE (Carpet America Recovery Effort), spoke for them when she said, “The biggest challenge for us is educating consumers, educating consumers, and educating consumers,” leaving no doubt where she thinks emphasis needs to be placed. 

John Challinar, director of corporate affairs at Nestlé Waters Canada, agreed, and also argued that a bottle deposit law is not necessary to prompt successful recovery and recycling of postconsumer recyclate (PCR).

But according to an annual survey conducted by e-newsletter Plastics Recycling Update, in 2009, 86% of PET recyclers surveyed said they would support container deposit legislation, and 60% of PE recyclers did, said Henry Leinweber, associate editor of the newsletter. In 2009, according to respondents, 54% of PET and PE recyclers increased their volume, but margins fell. Although recyclers say finding bales of PCR material is easier than before, quality is way down. “The quality has dropped in every year of this survey,” now in its fourth iteration, he said. As a result, respondents said their top move is investing in more efficient cleaning/sorting/recycling equipment.

Coca-Cola late last year introduced its PlantBottle, using PCR-PET and PET with its precursors derived from renewable resources, but it capped PCR-PET content at 30% in North America, also due to lack of supply. Working to counter that will be Leon Farahnik. As reported in last month’s MPW “Notable Processors” feature, Farahnik, former owner of processors including PWP Industries and Hilex-Poly, plans to install a massive 100 million-lb/year PET recycling facility in California, and within the next six years to have three plants of this size across the United States. Currently much of the PCR-PET in California is exported to China, but Farahnik reckons he can compete for enough of it to keep his recycling plant fed. 

He’ll face competition aplenty, based on a presentation made by Stephanie Lam, business development manager at UNM International, a global recycling firm based in Hong Kong. In 2009 she purchased more than 140 million lb of recovered plastics from North America and the Middle East. Lam said a Chinese regulation implemented in November 2009 requires the registration of foreign recyclate suppliers and domestic assignees, a move made to limit the amount of unusable plastics waste imported into the country.

“A crackdown by customs officials in 2009 eliminated a significant percentage of illegal imports,” she said. Despite that, Chinese recyclers’ biggest problem remains trying to find enough quality recyclate, she said, just like their peers in North America and elsewhere. Domestically, she said, there remains little PCR resin available, as the culture of reuse among consumers doesn’t allow for much waste creation.

Plastics recyclers have a tough lot but at least they generally have no concerns on the demand side of the equation; quite the opposite, in fact, noted Mike Shedler, director of technology at Napcor (National Assn. for PET Container Resources). “There is a phenomenal pent-up demand for this recyclate,” he said. “The problem now is getting it.” Napcor (Sonoma, CA), first formed with the mission to serve PET bottle processors and their customers, in 2007 opened its membership to processors of thermoformed PET containers.

Non-bottle PET in the spotlight
In the U.S., there is tremendous interest in increasing the available supply of PCR from thermoformed PET packaging. According to Shedler, in 2008 about 1.4 billion lb of this packaging was produced in North America, not counting imported material, which also is a significant amount (think PET clamshell packaging of electronic devices).

The need for greater collection is huge, he said. “By 2011, [thermoformed PET packaging] could be half the size of the PET bottle market [based on total material consumption], as growth is about 15% per annum, driven by conversion from polystyrene and PVC to PET.”

However, demand for recyclate from PET bottles is “going through the roof,” said Shedler, which means many recyclers are hesitant to start recycling non-bottle PCR-PET, for which there may not be a customer base. Also hindering greater recycling of non-bottle PET packaging, he said, are look-alike materials (especially OPS, PVC, and PLA), which spoil the recyclate pool. In addition, the wide variety of intrinsic viscosities (IV) for PET sheet makes it difficult for a processor to get the type of material he needs.

In comparison, PCR-PET bottles are relatively homogenous. Napcor sees an IV range for thermoformed PET packaging extending from 0.64-0.80. Other issues hurtful to greater recycling rates of these packs are the many shapes, use of direct printing, and use of different adhesives and additives.

Many are working to overcome these challenges. The Assn. of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR; Washington, DC), for instance, last year formed a new group, the Rigid Plastics Recycling Program, to focus specially on non-bottle recycling, said Elizabeth Bedard, the APR director. “Our goal is to expand beyond #1 and #2 containers,” she said, referring to PET (recycling code #1) and PE (#2). Most automated sorting systems can separate PET and PE but not other plastics.

The APR’s membership has more than doubled in the past five years, said Bedard, and the new group for rigid non-bottle packaging includes brand owners such as Estée Lauder and Kraft. “Consumers want to recycle more; brand owners want to use more recyclate . . . and brand owners want a greater variety of PCR resins,” she explained.

According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), about 325 million lb of non-bottle plastics packaging was recycled in 2007, with two-thirds of that exported. Just more than half of the total was oversized items such as pails and buckets. The ACC estimates there needs to be consistent, clean supply of about 400 million lb of a particular plastic for recycling of it to be profitable. Bedard estimates that in the U.S., grocery stores generate about 135,000 tonnes/year of rigid plastics packaging, with almost all ending in landfills.

Taking the discussion to the people
Various industry agencies and trade groups are working to improve the supply of PCR through consumer education and government lobbying. Steve Russell, director of the ACC’s plastics division, said his group is “taking the discussion” to the public, including close work with the Keep America Beautiful foundation on recycling and litter abatement.

“It’s been a long while since we had a sustained focus on personal behavior at the national level,” he explained. The ACC has added a full-time staffer to focus on recycling, is increasingly bringing the issue to the attention of lawmakers, and is developing a program to expand collection of non-bottle rigid plastics, such as thermoformed or injection molded packaging.

Ed Skernolis, VP recycling at Keep America Beautiful, said his group recently opened a Washington, DC office primarily to lobby for recycling issues. “Washington by and large has not been paying attention to recycling issues for a long time,” he said, adding, “That’s starting to change.”

One huge question remains: “When will polypropylene recovery and recycling take off?” For now, very little of the material is being recaptured from and reused by consumers, even as the price of PP has climbed so that it often no longer has a price advantage over PET. PP’s been a huge winner in multiple industries, among them packaging, where its heat resistance, greatly improved clarity (in the past years, due to additive developments), and improvements in controlling processing of the material (especially thermoforming, where its sag is an issue) have made it the choice for an increasing number of packages. Coffee chain Starbucks, for instance, switched to PP from PET for its cold drink cups for those reasons, plus, it claimed, because PP’s carbon footprint is about 45% less than that of PET.

Plenty of questions remain and there are tough issues to debate. Clear from the event, which was attended by more than 900 from around the world, is that plastics recycling is on the cusp of a number of big breakthroughs: better sorting technology, increased collection of materials beyond PET and PE, and the tremendous focus on collecting more non-bottle PCR-PET. Next year’s event in March in New Orleans no doubt will continue this story. Matt Defosse
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