Moving Mountains

Features - Plastics

Plastic charged into the basic materials stream in the 1950s, and its recycling has gained momentum

July 17, 2013
Brian Taylor

In 1963, the same year that Recycling Today was founded as Secondary Raw Materials, a novel called “The Graduate,” written by a young author named Charles Webb, was published.

The novel would be turned into a popular movie four years later, with one of its catch phrases revolving around a scene wherein the young protagonist is told a potential key to his post-graduate future can be summed up in one word: plastics.

By the 1960s, plastic was indeed a growth industry, as a wide variety of polymers grabbed market share away from other basic materials in one application after another.

In its initial growth stages, plastic was often seen as a disposable, even lower-end material made from readily available petro-chemicals. Widespread recycling of plastics has subsequently developed, slowly at first and often in fits and starts. However, as the price of oil rose, recycling techniques for plastic developed and global trading for plastic scrap evolved, the sector has established itself on solid footing.

By the Numbers

For something to be recycled properly, it first has to be identified properly. This often proved to be a difficult first step in plastic recycling, but at least one good-faith effort has helped make a difference.

The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), Washington, introduced its Resin Identification Code (RIC) system in 1988 as curbside recycling programs were being introduced rapidly throughout the United States. The SPI asked plastic container manufacturers to include on each consumer product bottle or jug (most often on the bottom) a “chasing arrows” recycling symbol with one of seven numbers on the inside and one of seven abbreviations underneath.

The number and abbreviation identified the resin content of the container:

  1. PET (or PETE), polyethylene terephthalate
  2. HDPE, high-density polyethylene
  3. PVC, polyvinyl chloride
  4. LDPE, low-density polyethylene
  5. PP, polypropylene
  6. PS, polystyrene
  7. “Other”

Subsequently, many cities or haulers asked residents to place only #1 or #2 containers into their recycling bins, and the codes helped meet such requests. Workers at material recovery facilities (MRFs) could also use the codes for assistance during the sorting process. The system, turning 25 in 2013, has its critics and may be showing its age. One criticism holds that the codes are often stamped onto brightly colored containers or onto food trays that are not welcome by many consumers of the #1 or #2 resin.

A Complicated Task
When metals are alloyed or ink is added to paper, it can complicate the recycling of those materials, whether by dictating sorting steps (for alloys) or a de-inking process for paper. The researchers and entrepreneurs who have driven the growth of plastic recycling have faced multiple such hurdles when developing cost-effective methods to recycle plastic.

Metals can be sorted visually and then purified through smelting and refining, and scrap paper can be de-inked and fibers can be isolated through pulping and screening. Returning plastics to a marketable secondary state, however, initially proved both more difficult and more selective.

By the 1970s there were thousands of different polymer variations in use, and even like polymers often contained different dyes, fillers, laminates or other additives that made commingling undesirable.

In factory settings, scrap that was known to be of the same polymer and color could go through several re-processing steps to allow it to be reintroduced in the manufacturing process.

Amonth the pioneers of secondary resin production was H. Muehlstein & Co. Inc., Norwalk, Conn. Consultant Ron Sherga refers to the Muehlstein family as “early adopters” who learned by trial and error.

“Often the markets and policymakers did not support them, but they persevered and went on to somewhat succeed,” says Sherga of H. Muehlstein and other companies heading the plastics recycling curve.

H. Muehlstein & Co.’s main business was selling primary resins produced by bigger companies, but by the 1950s the firm was reprocessing plastic scrap purchased from primary producers. (The company is now part of Belgium-based Ravago Group.)

Another early plastics recycling firm was Wellman Inc., which spun off its recycling operations in 2008 into an entity now known as Wellman Plastics Recycling, Johnsonville, S.C.

Wellman had its roots in Massachusetts in the wool business and began producing nylon fibers in the 1950s. By the 1960s, Wellman found it could use plastic scrap fibers and films to make marketable secondary fiberfill products.

In 1979, as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles became more common, Wellman became a pioneer in using scrap PET bottles as feedstock at its new recycling plant in Johnsonville.

Wellman’s early success in using scrap PET bottles helped provide an end market at a time when the growth of curbside collection programs was about to greatly increase the supply. Other plastic fiber and fabric producers in the textile heartland of the Carolinas and north Georgia took notice and soon began to provide additional destinations for beverage containers.

As curbside collection activity grew and as competition developed for Wellman’s supply, Wellman made a move designed to more fully bring the two worlds together.

In 1989, Wellman signed an agreement with Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), at that time one of the nation’s largest waste and recycling haulers, to buy all the curbside plastic material collected by BFI.

Bottles and More
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, curbside collection continued to bring in a harvest of post-consumer PET and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) materials, but recycling advocates were among those questioning whether more types of plastic should be diverted from landfills.

In the 1970s and 1980s, beverage container recycling itself was far from perfected. “The early PET bottle had HDPE bottoms on them that were difficult to sort and prevented an aggressive program to capture soda bottle scrap,” recalls Sherga.

Improvements in PET bottle design eventually eliminated the HDPE bottom, but the problem was indicative of the inherent difficulties of recycling the complicated plastic scrap stream.

Identification of plastics by consumers and workers at material recovery facilities (MRFs) was another initial problem, one that received a degree of help in 1988 when the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) introduced a labeling or code system for plastic consumer packaging. (See the sidebar “By the Numbers” on page 38.)

While the SPI’s #1 through #7 codes helped in some instances, recycling efforts continued to suffer from the overwhelming diversity in polymers, compounds and colors used in packaging, automotive components and consumer products.

Source separation was one way to try to overcome this barrier. Isolating like materials was easiest to do in a factory setting, helping industrial plastic recycling and reprocessing to quietly gain momentum in the 1980s and 1990s.

In northern Illinois in 1982, scrap metal dealer Hank Render informed his son Robert that he intended to diversify into plastic scrap. Although Robert recalls that he was skeptical of the move, he and future business partner David Kaplan spent the 1980s establishing a business that specialized in industrial scrap recycling that was eventually spun off from Hank’s scrap metal company.

By 2001, Maine Plastics (now based in Zion, Ill.), was a $10 million company operating in a 160,000-square-foot plant that avoided post-consumer bottles in favor of plastic scrap from manufacturing sites.

Obtaining clean scrap was easier working with industrial clients, but learning the market for global sales was no easy task. “We have 34 single-spaced pages full of specs and codes of different resins, from 32 major ‘families’ of plastics,” Render told Recycling Today for a 2001 feature article.

The years between 2005 and 2012 witnessed considerable progress in the use of recycled resins by makers of automobiles, appliances and consumer electronics.

After decades of engineers and designers urging resistance to the use of secondary resins, newly adopted sustainability targets (as well as tangible bottom-line benefits) began trumping this tradition.

As one example, Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., says it has increased its use of recycled-content yarns in seat fabrics from zero in 2007 to being present in 66 percent of the company’s vehicle models for 2013.

Likewise, General Motors has issued a “zero waste” blueprint and says it considers all the scrap byproducts generated during its manufacturing and assembly operations as “useful and marketable.” Such changes in attitude have helped boost domestic demand for plastic scrap.

Searching for a Solution

Plastic shopping bags, most often made of thin polyethylene film, have been targeted by environmentalists for elimination in part because of their tendency to be blown about by the wind until snared by a tree, shrub or fence.

The bags can be readily recycled if collected and shipped to a reprocessing destination. However, operators of material recovery facilities (MRFs) generally do not welcome the bags in their plants, as they have that same tendency to become ensnared—in this case in the plant’s machinery.

Although several cities, states and overseas countries have heavily regulated the bags (either placing a mandatory fee for their use or legislating an outright ban), the bag’s manufacturers continue to propose recycling solutions.

One of the first attempts occurred in 1990, when Mobil Corp. (not yet part of Exxon) was producing some 5 billion plastic grocery bags each year.

Mobil introduced an in-store collection program at Safeway markets in the Western U.S., matching a program already established by Sonoco Products Co., which was collecting bags at some 1,500 stores.

A 1990 Associated Press story said Mobil was making the move in part as a response to bag-ban legislation that was being considered in many places. Mobil also said it was “stepping up [its] efforts to develop products that can contain greater amounts of recycled materials.”

More than 20 years later, one of the leading plastic bag makers, Hilex Poly, Hartsville, S.C. (a spinoff from Sonoco Products), is emphasizing the 30 and 35 percent recycled content bags produced at its plant in North Vernon, Ind.

One Teu at a Time
The decade from 2001 to 2010 saw a rise in post-consumer plastic scrap collected, some prompted by an “all bottles” collection campaign championed by Waste Management Inc. and other MRF operators.

Domestic markets for #1 and #2 bottles and jugs absorbed some of this scrap. Fiber, strapping and plastic lumber manufacturers in the U.S. were eager for the material while emerging “bottle-to-bottle” plants also began production.

But for several years, much of this scrap was loaded into 40-foot and 20-foot-equivalent unit (TEU) containers and sold as a mixed plastic scrap to buyers in China.

According to a report by Moore Recycling Associates Inc., Sonoma, Calif., by 2004 China imported 5.5 billion pounds of plastic scrap and in 2008 this figure had risen to 9.7 billion pounds.

China’s manufacturers were eager to go through the washing and sorting processes necessary to use this scrap as feedstock, including the low-density polyethylene (#4) and polypropylene (#5) containers for which domestic end markets have often proven hard to find.

Although imported plastic scrap has found many uses in China, some environmental advocates in that nation have expressed concern about unwanted, contaminated and even hazardous materials that have come along for the ride.

A breakdown of rejected scrap loads in 2012 gathered by the China Certification & Inspection Group (CCIC) shows that freight classified as plastic scrap comprised 56 percent of the rejections.

In 2013, China’s customs and inspection agencies have introduced Operation Green Fence to scrutinize incoming scrap loads, particularly plastic scrap.

As befits the relatively young history of plastic recycling, it is just one more barrier to be overcome on the path to progress.