EPA Closes Comment Period on Plastics-from-ASR Discussion

The agency will make a determination on how plastics from auto shredder fluff can be recycled.

January 31, 2013
Recycling Today Staff
Auto Shredding Legislation & Regulations Plastics

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has closed comments on its interpretation of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). After what it calls significant research, the EPA is considering supporting the recycling of plastics separated from automobile shredder residue (ASR).

On Dec. 12, 2012, the EPA announced a public comment period on the agency’s interpretation. The agency’s position is that recycling material that would otherwise become waste can generate a host of environmental and economic benefits while protecting people's health.

The issue of recycling plastics from ASR began when the EPA was approached by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, regarding the separation, recycling, use and distribution of recycled plastics from shredder residue recovered from metals recycling facilities.

In a February 24, 2011, letter, ISRI requested “written confirmation that separating plastics from ASR aggregate for use and distribution in commerce, using processes that reduce any PCBs that may be present to a level at or below which there is no unreasonable risk, is authorized” under regulations promulgated pursuant to TSCA analysis shows that the separation, recycling, distribution in commerce, and reuse of plastics from shredder aggregate is consistent with existing authorizations that allow the use and distribution in commerce of products that contain low levels of PCBs, including provisions for “excluded PCB products” and “excluded PCB manufacturing processes.”

In its letter, ISRI also stated that resolving regulatory uncertainty could lead to investments and further development in innovative methods to separate plastics from ASR materials that would produce broad environmental benefits and increase global competitiveness. The association also estimated that between 1 and 2 million tons of plastic are generated each year in ASR.

To support its position, ISRI developed a set of voluntary procedures designed to prevent the introduction of PCBs that are regulated for disposal into recycled plastics recovered from shredder residue generated by metal recycling facilities. The Voluntary Procedures for Recycling Plastics from Shredder Residue includes the development and implementation of a documented materials management system through the following: Documented source control programs aimed at preventing the introduction of PCBs regulated for disposal into the shredder feedstock materials that contribute to any shredder residue from which plastics will be recovered for recycling; and documented output control programs for facilities processing/producing/recycling plastics from shredder residue.

According to ISRI, of the 1 to 2 million tons of plastic that are generated annually in ASR, most could be separated and recycled rather than disposed using novel technologies. ISRI further delineates that the most common automotive plastic resin categories are polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PET), polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). ISRI also mentions acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and high-impact polystyrene (HIPS) as additional types of automotive plastics found in ASR.

By assuming that the 1 to 2 million tons of plastic generated from ASR annually, when characterized by the percentage of total plastic scrap from a typical 2001 vehicle, this would imply the following total annual volumes: PP, 221,000 to 442,000 tons (22.1 percent); polyurethane, 193,000 to 386,000 tons (22.1 percent); nylon, 124,000 to 248,000 tons (12.4 percent); PVC, 79,000 to 158,000 tons (7.9 percent); ABS, 74,000 to 148,000 tons (7.4 percent); PET, 44,000 to 88,000 tons (4.4 percent); polycarbonate, 39,000 to 78,000 tons (3.9 percent); other engineering resins, including HIPS, 109,000 to 218,000 tons (10.9 percent); polyvinyl butyral, 21,000 to 41,000 tons (2.1 percent); others, 98,000to 196,000 tons (9.8 percent).

To characterize the potential benefits of recovering and recycling plastics in ASR, ISRI commissioned a report from Nathan Associates Inc., Arlington, Va., which estimates economic benefits and environmental improvements from separating, sorting, processing, and recycling plastics found in ASR aggregate rather than disposing of the material.

Increases in the recycling of plastics from ASR also may offer some benefits beyond that of other forms of plastics recycling, according to the report. For instance, because substantial automotive recycling systems are already in place for the primary purpose of recovering steel, large quantities of ASR are already being simultaneously collected. Such available quantities of ASR may then be further separated and processed as necessary for purposes of recycling. Also, any potential expansion of ASR recycling capabilities could potentially generate excess capacity and/or technological advancements for use in the recycling of non-automotive products of a similar nature, such as large appliances.

EPA says the Nathan report does not address the extent to which economic activity associated with the recycling of plastics from ASR would displace current economic activity associated with disposal of plastics or the manufacturing of virgin materials. Nor does it address the timing of potential investments in new equipment. Additionally, the report relies on assumptions supported by limited data on plastic volumes, recoverability, environmental impacts and market prices, says EPA. EPA says it is interested in the public views on factors that may affect the direction, magnitude, and timing of benefits, costs, and environmental impacts associated with recycling plastics found in ASR rather than disposing of the material.

The interpretation under consideration would generally allow for the recycling of plastic separated from shredder residue under the conditions described in the Voluntary Procedures for Recycling Plastics from Shredder Residue document, relying principally on the regulatory provisions for excluded PCB products.

EPA says it believes it reasonable to interpret the regulations as generally allowing the recycling of excluded PCB products. Accordingly, under the interpretation discussed in its notice, to the extent that the feedstock (scrap materials) to a shredder consists of these kinds of materials, the plastics separated from the resulting residue could be recycled into new products, provided the PCB concentration in any resulting product is below 50 parts per million.

Typically, the burden of demonstrating that a regulatory exclusion applies rests with the party seeking that exclusion. EPA believes that, for shredders and their suppliers that follow the Voluntary Procedures document, it is appropriate to generally treat the feedstock as consisting of excluded PCB products unless there is information specifically indicating that the feedstock does not qualify. If shredders and suppliers do not follow the voluntary procedures, they will need to be able to otherwise demonstrate that the feedstock and residue meet the exclusion.

EPA has concluded that the costs associated with the strict prohibition on PCB activities are large and outweigh the risks posed by these activities. EPA has further stated, with respect to the excluded PCB products rule:

“These amendments have excluded the majority of low-level PCB activities (less than 50 ppm) from regulation. Given the difficulty of determining the precise source of PCBs, EPA believes the purpose of excluding ‘old’ PCBs under the excluded products rule is best effectuated in these circumstances by treating < 50 ppm materials entering a shredder as excluded PCB products unless there is information specifically indicating that the materials do not qualify. However, based on examination of data provided by ISRI in a 'Summary of Analysis Done on Plastics Recovered from Shredder Aggregate' for four types of plastic recovered from shredder residue (ABS, HIPS, PP, HDPE), EPA believes it is less likely that the PCBs that have been found associated with these plastics separated from shredder residue resulted from excluded manufacturing processes, because, among other things, EPA has not received notification from manufacturers required for these processes. “

More information on the EPA’s decision as part of the Federal Register publishing process can be found at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-12-12/html/2012-29904.htm.