Breaking through barriers to boost recycling rates
From left: David Eldridge of Plastics Recycling World magazine, Brett Stevens, Michelle Hedlund, Prem Patel and Chris Parker

Breaking through barriers to boost recycling rates

Four unique perspectives on how to address challenges with sustainability goals and recycling education.

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May 10, 2019

In the past year, many major brand owners announced commitments to incorporate a certain percentage of recycled content into their packaging by 2025. Coca-Cola, Walmart, Aldi and other businesses all pledged to increase the amount of recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging they used by 2025.

However, a challenge exists for these goals: Plastic scrap recovery rates in the United States can’t currently meet all the demand coming online. 

Several recycling industry stakeholders gathered to discuss this challenge in an educational session at the Plastics Recycling World Expo in Cleveland May 8. 

“The amount of high-end PCR (postconsumer resin) available on the market is finite,” said Brett Stevens, global vice president of material sales and procurement at Trenton, New Jersey-based TerraCycle. “The reason it’s finite is because curbside collection levels are stable. If levels are stable and producers are oversold, where is the supply coming from?”

Stevens added that the companies that are making changes have “the right idea at heart,” but he is not sure how they will source the material with current plastic scrap recovery rates. 

Prem Patel, global strategy and business development manager of plastic additives at Milliken & Co., Spartanburg, South Carolina, added that the majority of brand owners making commitments seem to be genuine. He noted that he’s seen some of the sustainability teams at these major brands working more quickly on these sustainability initiatives than normal. 

“I think they’re passionate,” Patel said. “I don’t know if they know what they signed up for. One of the biggest challenges is on the collection and sort side to get enough good quality material to drive use in these applications. It’s a big task they signed up for.” 

Chris Parker, sustainability manager at Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Winpak, offered a brand owner perspective in the panel discussion. He noted that most brand owners do want to see improvement, but it requires a lot of stakeholders to reach that point.

“We can’t put 20 percent PCR in a product if it’s not collected or collected properly,” he said. “It has to be balanced. You have to do this in a time when the price of virgin resin increases. But we’re in a tight time frame—2025 will be here before we know it. So, we have to work together to continue to grow this sector so the resources are there, the material recovery facilities (MRFs) are there and MRFs can make money.”

He added that meeting sustainability goals will be challenging, given that virgin resin prices are at all-time lows. “That’s a difficult situation for recycling. Somehow, we have to break that mold. [In Canada], EPR (extended producer responsibility) is the way to do that. If brand owners want to get a circular economy, grease has to be on the wheel to keep it turning, otherwise it dies. MRFs have to pay bills—it all costs money.”

Addressing residential recycling

Michelle “Mitch” Hedlund, founder of Recycle Across America, noted in the session that there seem to be two issues facing the industry: meeting brand owner sustainability goals and reducing contamination rates in residential recycling. 

“If you keep pushing demand and have greater expectations, more companies need to meet this goal, but there’s no [plastic scrap] feedstock,” she said. “It’s like promising someone a Maserati with sugar in its fuel—it can’t go.” 

Hedlund added that fixing public confusion about recycling is likely a “good first step” to help achieve these sustainability goals. “The public absolutely cares about recycling. They love it and defend it. The reality that we’re all witnessing right now in the media, and what I recognized 10 years ago, is that it’s too confusing for the public to do properly.”

With demand in place for recycled plastic scrap and with technology coming on board to process it, public education could help boost recovery rates. She added that she’s a proponent of placing standardized educational labels on bins and recycling containers across the U.S. as one method to reduce confusion.

“We have all the major ingredients in place for recycling to thrive,” Hedlund said. “Yet, the way it’s presented to the public makes it absolutely, undoubtedly impossible for them to do properly or take seriously.”

“Confusion levels today are insane,” Stevens added. “Most consumers, and even some industry professionals, throw any plastic they see into a bin because it seems simple. But the resin code on the bottom of the package doesn’t tell the consumer the whole story. There’s probably a need to simplify the message. Maybe the government can help with this, but some level of standardization is needed.” 

Also, Hedlund noted that stakeholders need to ensure the MRF operators’ opinions are heard on this topic since the MRFs are the ones dealing with contamination. She said stakeholders must collaborate with MRF operators to communicate clearly with the public what they accept. 

Patel said there also needs to be improved infrastructure to ensure people can recycle properly outside the home. 

“You walk around town and you don’t see many recycling bins,” he said. “Someone has to invest in that infrastructure to make [improving recycling rates] more feasible.”