ISRI2017: Plastic's environmental impact

Plastic is being used in a growing number of products and packages for reasons that may not be obvious to consumers.

May 12, 2017
Recycling Today Staff
Conferences & Events Plastics

Despite plastic being used a growing number of product and packaging applications because of the environmental benefits it offers, its recycling rate has not kept up with that pace. However, the material’s environmental benefits may not be obvious to consumers, according to Patty Moore, president of Sustainable Materials Management of California and executive director of Plastic Recycling Corp. of California, Sonoma, California. Moore addressed attendees of the ISRI2017 session The New Energy Boom and how it Impacts Profitability of Plastics Recycling.

Moore addressed the concept of sustainable materials management, explaining that it was about “impact, not attributes,” such as containing recycled content, being compostable or being organic.

While recycled content can resonate with consumers, Moore said recycled-content products can have a greater impact on the environment than products made with virgin material. She cited molded fiber, which is used instead of plastic air cushions in some packaging applications. Moore said molded fiber takes a lot of energy to make largely because of the drying process, resulting in a greater environmental impact than air cushions. “It’s important to understand the impacts.”

Moore noted that substituting alternative materials for plastics in some consumer products and packaging applications can lead to four times the environmental costs of using “business as usual plastics.” Using “more sustainable plastic” reduces the delta in environmental costs even more. 

She said a paper coffee cup with a cardboard sleeve has more of an environmental impact than an expanded polystyrene cup. “I want people to think a little bit more differently about why plastics use is increasing,” Moore said.

When it comes to postconsumer plastics that are recovered for recycling, she said, “quality sells," adding that quality helps to ensure more consistent sales at better prices.

She said U.S. exports of recovered plastics have been flat. She predicted a slight drop in export sales going forward. “The future is going to be domestic.”

The data Moore presented indicated an upward trend in U.S. consumption of postconsumer recycled plastics, with that figure growing from slightly less than 2,000 million pounds in 2009 to roughly 3,600 million pounds in 2015. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) make up the majority of this material, followed by nonbottle rigids and film.

She said the U.S. has more conversion capacity than material available for processing. “There is more than enough capacity for PET bottles generated in the U.S.”

Bale yield is an ongoing problem that convertors must contend with, Moore said, noting that it can range from 60 percent to the mid-70s.

PET thermoforms are under pressure to use more recycled content, she said. But when it comes to recycling this material, not all haulers, material recovery facilities (MRFs) or recyclers want them.

Sales of HDPE bottles have been static in the U.S. As the value of this material has declined, so has the growth in collection, she said. While the U.S. has reclamation capacity for segregated HDPE, a lack of separation capacity is leading less reclamation.

ISRI2017, the annual conference for the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), was April 22-27 in New Orleans.