Plastics Recycling 2018: A question of infrastructure

Plastics Recycling 2018: A question of infrastructure

Panelists examine the effectiveness of recycling infrastructure in the U.S.

February 28, 2018
DeAnne Toto
Conferences & Events Municipal / IC&I Plastics

Pictured above, from left: Nina Bellucci Butler, Mike Centers, Tom Outerbridge and Eddie Ingle.

As the stream of materials collected for recycling continues to evolve, it raises questions about how well existing U.S. recycling infrastructure is prepared to deal with these changes. Panelists during the Plastics Recycling 2018 session titled How to Optimize the Infrastructure attempted to address those questions.

Moderator Nina Bellucci Butler, CEO of More Recycling, Sonoma, California, noted that the presence of nonbottle rigid plastics and plastic film were growing in the residential material stream, while polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles have not grown. (For more information on the growth of film and nonbottle rigids recycling, click here.) However, she added, nonbottle rigid plastics and plastic film are among the recyclables most at risk currently, as they largely have been exported to China, which has banned the import of postconsumer plastics.

“If we don’t dramatically stimulate demand and improve infrastructure, will we have to reduce the types of plastics extracted?” Butler asked. She said recycling in the U.S. has been focused on collection at the expense of sorting and demand.

Mike Centers, founder of Titus MRF Services, Concord, California, said collecting recyclables was effective and efficient, while sorting of these recyclables was not as effective as it could be. He believed secondary material recovery facilities (SMRFs) could enhance existing recycling infrastructure, saying such facilities were the “missing link” the industry needs.  

Titus operates a pilot SMRF in California, where Centers said the company is “sorting material that would otherwise go to landfill.”

Centers said incoming contamination was an issue for MRFs. “If you put junk into a MRF, you get junk out.”

While he said machine yield losses vary by MRFs, they were generally increasing. This material is what his SMRF is sorting.

Centers said such facilities would take in residue from five to 10 MRFs in a geographic area for additional processing. The SMRF would “aggregate low-volume materials along with machine yield loses” from these facilities “to reach the critical mass necessary to justify investments in automated technologies for sorting by material type.”

The Titus pilot SMRF is recovering mixed paper, PET bottles, PET thermoforms, PETG (glycol-modified PET), HDPE/LDPE (low-density polyethylene), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene/expanded polystyrene (PS/EPS), polylactic acid (PLA), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), aseptic cartons and ferrous and nonferrous metals.

Centers said about 50 percent of the material his company receives at its pilot facility cannot be sorted into a product and is responsibly disposed of.

The SMRF offers an advantage to a plastics recycling facility (PRF), which sorts Nos. 3-7 plastics, because it can draw in more material from a given area than a PRF, which would have to source its bales from greater distances to get the volume required, increasing costs, Centers said.

To some degree, the Sims Municipal Recycling (SMR) MRF in Brooklyn, New York, functions in part like a secondary MRF because it sorts residue from other area MRFs as well as rerunning its own residue.

The facility is equipped with 16 optical sorters and ballistic separators, said Tom Outerbridge, SMR general manager. He described the MRF as being “very efficient given what we get from the city.”

SMR is a division of global scrap metal and electronics recycling company Sims Metal Management, with corporate offices in Sydney and in New York. Outerbridge said the company’s background in metals recycling “suffuses the MRF operations.”

The Brooklyn MRF, known as Sunset Park, employs 195 people and processes 500,000 tons per year of curbside recyclables, as well as Nos. 1-7 and Nos. 3-7 plastic bales.

He said it was New York City’s goal to optimize recycling participation, which meant simplifying the education message. Because New York City must export its waste to landfills, which is very expensive, Outerbridge said the city had an incentive to get materials in the right bins.

The city shifted to accept “all rigid” plastic in 2013, and the MRF’s incoming tonnage has grown by 5,500 tons per month, or 30 percent, from 2013 through 2017.

Although the MRF’s tonnage increased by 30 percent, so did its waste generation, he said. “The bump in contamination is the price we pay to get more material in the stream.”

“We can recover just about anything,” Outerbridge said, “but there has to be a market for it.”

He continued, “Without inherent commodity value, there must be a commitment to use recycled content to drive demand.”

Despite the impression that recycled plastics are inferior, Eddie Ingle, vice president of supply chain and Repreve polymer sales for North Carolina-based Unifi, said “You don’t need to compromise when you make a recycled product.”

However, that is not to say that the process is easy. Ingle said recycling PET bottles into yarn is “quite hard to do.”

Despite that, Repreve recycles 2.2 billion bottles annually into polyester yarn, which, Ingle said, “runs and dyes like virgin yarn.”

He continued, “If we had more material at a lower price, we know we could sell more product.”

Ingle added that Unifi doesn’t use recycled material for the cost savings. Although the company would “love to have recycled material as cheap as virgin, we are not there yet,” he said.

Plastics Recycling 2018 was Feb. 19-21 in Nashville, Tennessee. The event is organized by Portland, Oregon-based Resource Recycling.  

HDPE LDPE Material recovery facilities/MRFs PET Polyethylene/PE Polypropylene/PP Polystyrene/PS PVC Rigid plastics