Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference 2017: The importance of collaboration

Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference 2017: The importance of collaboration

Supply chain collaboration is needed to improve recycling, panelists say.

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October 16, 2017
DeAnne Toto
Conferences & Events Municipal / IC&I Plastics

Pictured above, from left: Jim Keefe, Mike Pope, Pamela Oksiuta, Bill Rumpke and Jim Frey

For recycling to be successful, the entire supply chain must work together. This was the opinion expressed by the panelists who participated in the Future of Recycling keynote during the 2017 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference. The event, which was organized by the Recycling Today Media Group, took place in Chicago from Oct 11 to 13.

Bill Rumpke, president and CEO of Cincinnati-based waste and recycling firm Rumpke, said ensuring participation among the entire supply chain is a “huge issue” for the recycling industry.

Packing producer Sonoco has a “vested interest” in getting the packaging it produces, which ranges from plastic thermoform containers to Pringles cans, back for use as raw material in its facilities, said Mike Pope, president of Sonoco Recycling, Hartsville, North Carolina. He added that the only material recovered from material recovery facilities (MRFs) that Sonoco does not use in the packaging it produces in glass.

Jim Frey of RRS, Ann Arbor, Michigan, who served as co-moderator of the session along with Jim Keefe, publisher of the Recycling Today Media Group, said consumer packaged goods (CPGs) companies and brand owners increasingly are a part of the recycling industry.

Representing that link in the chain was Pamela Oksiuta, senior director of global sustainability at SC Johnson, which is based in Racine, Wisconsin. She noted that unlike most CPG companies, SC Johnson is a family company. “We don’t have to answer to Wall Street,” she added. “We can go beyond what is expected.”

Oksiuta said the company prioritizes sustainability and transparency. “We want consumers to know what we are doing and how we are doing it.”

As of early October 2017, she said SC Johnson had 17 zero-waste-to-landfill facilities.

Oksiuta said SC Johnson is interested in using as much postconsumer recycled plastic in its packaging as possible. To that end, she added, the company would like consumers to be able to recycle its Ziploc products at the curb. Only 2 percent of bags are taken back to the store for recycling, Oksiuta added. She believes this rate could be increased if the product could be accepted for recycling at the curbside. She acknowledged that adding Ziploc products to curbside recycling programs won’t occur over the short term but will instead take roughly a decade.

Oksiuta said 60 percent of communities must be able to recycle these products at the curb before SC Johnson can legally make that claim. To facilitate this goal, she added that SC Johnson was seeking more end markets for bags collected curbside to generate demand for this material.  

Rumpke said better collaboration throughout the supply chain is necessary, particularly on the plastics side, to increase recycling, particularly as packaging streams change.

While he said material recovery facility (MRF) operators must build plants that are “adaptable” to the market and to the changing material stream, adding that Rumpke has built its MRFs in such a way, he said he would rather have a conversation with brand owners about changes to the packaging stream before these packages start hitting the market so changes can be addressed proactively.

“Collaboration is key as we look at types or formats of packaging,” Pope said. “It can’t be one-off effort.”

While Rumpke said many people believe recyclables placed at the curb for collection have high value, they may not have enough value to cover collection costs much less processing costs. He added that larger containers and improved routing efficiencies are necessary to keep recycling affordable for communities.

Oksiuta said there is value in having people understand their responsibilities when it comes to recycling, prompting Rumpke to add that communities need to “go after” education.

Regarding processing-related issues, Rumpke said MRF operators “have to do a better job.” He added that his company is in it for the long term, saying it offers a “total waste solution model.” Rumpke noted his company’s approach to glass processing as an example. The company operates a glass processing plant in Dayton, Ohio, which it opened after recognizing the need for additional processing of MRF glass in the area.   

He added that the market will be developed by companies that think long term about recycling.

Regarding National Sword, China’s customs crackdown on the quality of imported recyclables, and its implications for the recycling industry, Pope said, “Ultimately, we see this as a short-term issue.” He added that the recycling industry “will figure this out.”

In an effort to improve the quality of the commodities it recovers for recycling, Rumpke said his company is “looking hard at robotics,” with plans to add the technology to its MRFs in the near future. He added that robotics “won’t replace employees” but instead will “help us clean up material a little better and more consistently.”

While not all brand owners care about recycled content commitments, Pope said, they do have a role to play. However, he added that government mandates in this area would have “unintended consequences.”

All things being equal, Oksiuta said consumers will choose recycled-content packaging. On the part of brand owners, she said many have made strong commitments to use recycled content, adding that recycled material shows less volatility in pricing over time than virgin material.