With China’s ban on importing plastic scrap and other Southeast Asian countries restricting the import of this commodity, more plastic scrap remains in the waste stream in the United States. Several recyclers and municipalities gathered to discuss how changes in recycling on a global level are affecting them in their communities during the Plastics Recycling World Expo in Cleveland May 8.
Sunil Bagaria, president of GDB International, New Brunswick, New Jersey, said his business relied on exporting plastic scrap to China for many years because it “was the easiest thing to do” and “businesses take the path of least resistance.”
When China stopped accepting plastic scrap from overseas, Bagaria said it prompted his business to invest domestically. GDB International invested money in plastics extruders in New Jersey to pelletize scrap locally, as well as other infrastructure.
“The thing with China did not happen overnight,” Bagaria added. “There were signs there since 2015. They were tightening little by little. We knew a day would come that shipping scrap to China would become almost impossible. Now, we’re helping generators close the loop [domestically],” adding that there is a lot of demand in the U.S. for recycled plastic scrap.
Robert Render, commercial manager at Ravago Recycling Group, Wilton, Connecticut, said his business installed equipment to dry material, screen it and recover it as a result of bans and restrictions on plastic scrap export. He noted that his company is investing in domestic recyclers to boost quality. In today’s market, he said, “collaboration is very important.”
From a municipal perspective, China’s bans on plastic scrap have made recycling education challenging. Kristen Hall, sustainability director for the City of Cleveland, said the city has likely shared seven different messages about recycling to residents in a matter of 10 years. She noted that this has created confusion and made quality an issue at material recovery facilities (MRFs) in the community.
“Your average resident, recycling is not top of mind,” she said. “They see a triangle symbol and think it’s recyclable. Not many people understand what goes into separating materials out. We’ve made it easy for them to put it all in one bin, but that has not been effective.”
As a result, she said MRFs in the area are having to send nonrecycled plastic scrap to landfills. “If our residents aren’t sending them clean streams, it impacts what they’re able to process.”
Lori Carson, director of commercial operations at Phoenix Technologies International, Bowling Green, Ohio, said her business didn’t feel the impact of China’s bans on plastic scrap as much as businesses might have felt in coastal regions.
“We’re located in the Midwest,” she said. “We’ve had probably less impact from the China ban. And the good news is more material is available. We’re buying material throughout the U.S. It was not available before because of cost. As you increase supply, cost comes down. So, that’s been a good thing.”
Carson added that polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is easy to move, but non-PET plastics are a challenge. “They’re harder for us to get rid of and we’re spending more time working on that than we did before. We find homes, but it takes more effort to find homes for plastics that doesn’t fit our business set.”
With some challenges facing plastic scrap, several of the panelists suggested that federal, state or local government need to intervene to boost recycling rates of plastic scrap in the U.S. Render said he is working with the Plastics Industry Association (Plastics), Washington, to advocate for plastics recycling as well as modernizing MRFs to federal government. He noted that government-led initiatives can work.
“Twenty to 30 years ago, you saw tires at the side of the road,” Render said. “Now, you buy tires, you pay a tax to a state fund that subsidizes the recycling of that tire. That’s a good example.”
Bagaria added that some regional legislation needs to be implemented nationwide. He said California has legislation that states that garbage bags sold in the state must contain at least 10 percent recycled content. He said, “Why is that not done universally within our country? This seems like a no-brainer example.”
Also, Carson said legislation will have to be implemented to address plastic scrap challenges in the U.S. if businesses, consumers and nonprofits can’t solve them.
“When something is a big problem, if you can’t tackle it, you will have legislation,” she said, adding that a variety of groups will need to work together to reduce plastic scrap from going to landfills.
Opportunity in chemical recycling
Panelists also mentioned chemical recycling could serve as a solution to some of the global recycling challenges for plastic scrap. Bagaria noted that chemical recycling is an “expensive proposition” and economics must make sense for it to work, but he said it’s a good way to close the loop with recycling. With mechanical recycling, he said recycled plastics have to be used in a lower quality application for second or third uses. With chemical recycling, companies can break polymers into monomers to make polymers again.
Render said chemical recycling is a bit of a game-changer for the industry.
“It’s totally different than when you take [plastic scrap], wash it, clean it and try to make it a pure product,” Render said, adding that chemical recycling methods could help brand owners achieve sustainability commitments of using higher percentages of recycled plastics.