U.S. plastics industry speaks truth to power during DC ‘Fly-In’

Plastics industry DC fly in

On March 27, men and women of the U.S. plastics industry made the case to government officials in Washington, DC, for greater recycling infrastructure at the 2019 Plastics Industry Fly-In.

According to a release from the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC), representatives from the plastics industry nationwide held more than 100 meetings with members of Congress and their staffs. The plastics industry is the nation’s third-largest manufacturing sector. Plastics industry representatives advocated for increased investment in the equipment, systems and other technologies that would enable the U.S. recycling industry to capture and recycle more plastic materials, a solution that would preserve the value of plastic products while addressing serious environmental challenges like litter and marine debris.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler addressed the Fly-In’s attendees, emphasizing the administration’s commitment to infrastructure reform that includes recycling and waste management. “We all agree that we need to address marine litter, but we need to address it in an effective and precise manner,” he said. “Plastics have revolutionized the way we live, often in ways we don’t even realize . . . to really solve this problem, we must stop the trash from reaching our oceans. This means improving waste management and recycling.

“I don’t believe that we have to choose between plastics or clean oceans,” he added. “We can have both.”

That’s a bit like preaching to the choir. Yes, we all know that. But the biggest infrastructure problems exist in countries that contribute an estimated 80% to the ocean plastic problem: China, Southeast Asia and the Philippines.

In the United States, however, recycling infrastructure has become an even bigger problem now that China has stopped accepting our baled plastic waste. Recycling, as I’ve said many times in my blogs on this topic is, well, complicated and very complex, due to the fact that we are dealing with an industrial process that links molecules into chains that keep them tightly knit together for a very long time to serve durable purposes. That’s about all I know from a layman’s point of view of chemistry.

There are some who believe that we can make a plastic material that doesn’t last forever—bioplastics. But that’s not exactly true. There are some who believe that plastics can be made to be compostable, but, so far, that’s not true, either. There are not many commercial composting facilities that will take “compostable” plastics because they do not dissolve into dirt. Biodegradable plastics will degrade over several months (or longer), and oxo-degradable plastics do a good job of degrading out in the open but, for reasons I won’t go into here, some in the industry seem to hate the “oxo” people.

A recent thread on SPE’s The Chain Industry Exchange shows just how much interest there is in the whole issue. As it usually does, the thread went on for days on this topic, with a lot of very good input from some very smart people! One idea that came through loud and clear is that the resin producers—the big guys in the industry—need to step up to the plate and jump whole hog into the recycling game.

One comment from Amit Dharia, PhD, (Transmit Technology Group in Irving, TX) suggested “all resin producers and converters should share some burden for putting advanced infrastructure for recycling,” which he noted would “automatically force the major resin producers to collect and sell more of the recycled material as they increase new production capacity of virgin materials” and “push them to invest in recycling technologies. Once resin producers feel the pain recycling companies feel, there will be a dramatic shift.”

A similar suggestion came from Kenneth Russell (Optimized Compounds LLC; Buford, GA). The major resin manufacturers should “purchase and accept recycled post industrial and post-consumer plastics that meet agreed specifications, then sell these recycled products as part of their portfolio for the applications for which they are suited. Elevate the status of recycled plastic to be on par with virgin resins when used appropriately.”

I have to agree with all that except for one fly I see in the ointment—a viable market that can absorb all of this recycled resin. That’s what I’m hearing now: There is a flood of recycled material out there in the U.S. and very little market for it. Some local and state governments are even trying to pass legislation that would mandate a certain percentage of post-consumer resin in all plastic products made in the state.

From some of the other comments, it’s pretty obvious that no one in the plastics industry wants the government to intercede in our businesses.

Even finding a way to automate the sorting of plastics by resin type is a huge problem that seems to have few technological answers. But there must be a better way than people examining every piece of post-consumer plastic for a specific number.

Now we’re hearing more about bio-based plastics becoming preferable, but that comes with another whole set of issues . . . and costs. And it won’t solve the overarching problem.

It’s great that the industry goes to DC every year. I went a couple of times several years ago, and it’s good to have these discussions with people in Congress—they need to know what their constituents are facing in the business world. But only industry can come up with the solution.

Image courtesy PLASTICS.

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