ISRI2018: Long-term opportunity

ISRI2018: Long-term opportunity

While challenging in the short-term, China's ban on imports of postconsumer plastic scrap could present a long-term opportunity for U.S. processors.

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April 23, 2018
DeAnne Toto

Pictured above, from left: Maite Quinn of Sims Municipal Recycling,
Danielle Easdale of First Star Recycling, Steve Alexander of the Association of Plastic Recyclers
and J. Scott Saunders of K.W. Plastics Recycling Divison

The Chinese central government banned the import of postconsumer plastic scrap at the end of 2017. The action has created turmoil in some regions of the U.S. that relied heavily on that export market, with reports of some plastic scrap being landfilled along the West Coast and other community recycling programs limiting the type of plastic scrap they are willing to accept.

While these are undeniably problems that must be addressed in the short term, speakers at the Spotlight on Plastics during ISRI2018, the annual conference and exposition hosted by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) in mid-April, said they saw opportunities to increase domestic recycling of plastics.

Maite Quinn, business development and marketing manager for Sims Municipal Recycling, New York, said her company has begun buying bales of Nos. 3-7 plastics and further sorting them at its Brooklyn material recovery facility (MRF). Bales of these types have been most affected by the ban and by the closure of U.S.-based PRFs (plastics recycling facilities) that were providing additional sorting and marketing of this material.

Quinn moderated the session, which featured Danielle Easdale of First Star Recycling, Omaha, Nebraska; J. Scott Saunders of K.W. Plastics Recycling Division, Troy, Alabama; and Steve Alexander of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), Washington.

Alexander said China’s scrap import policy changes have created the opportunity to increase domestic demand for recycled plastics. Currently, he said, most of the domestic demand for recycled plastics was on the spot market and not under a regular purchase contract.

The APR is operating under the assumption that China is not going to come back as a destination for postconsumer plastic generated in the U.S, Alexander said, so the organization is seeking to increase demand and enhance the value of the material domestically.

He said the APR is engaging in customized brand owner training programs with the goal of reducing the amount of contamination in plastic packaging. He cited Snapple, which introduced a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle to replace its glass bottle, as an example of the organization’s success in this area. The brand originally kept its aluminum lid when it converted to PET bottles; however, the APR has convinced the company to change the closure, Alexander said.

He added that he is seeing a growing number of companies that are interested in sorting the PP (polypropylene, or No. 5) plastic from Nos. 3-7 bales.

Regarding communities that have been restricting the plastics they collect for recycling, Alexander said, “Once you pull something out of the recycling stream, it’s hard to get it back in in an acceptable fashion.” He discouraged communities from doing so, instead urging them to be transparent about their actions if landfilling the material was the only viable option at the present.

Saunders said K.W. Plastics processes some 500 million pounds of HDPE and PP annually, with most of the company’s volume going into traditional markets where color is not a consideration.

He added that K.W. is “typically short on material; we can’t buy enough.” This has been exacerbated by a reduction in material on the market as MRFs respond to demands to improve the quality of their recovered paper by slowing down their processing lines, Saunders said.

He sees China’s actions as a “very large opportunity” for domestic processors.

“We have the capacity and markets available,” Saunders says of K.W. “We are a ready, willing and able market for every pound you’ll generate at good prices.”

However, some plastics will continue to present a challenge to recyclers in the short-term, and that’s where the Hefty EnergyBag Program could prove helpful.

First Star Recycling’s Easdale said to complement its recycling program, the company began offering the Hefty Energy Bag program to divert hard-to-recycle plastics from the waste stream. “From candy wrappers to potato chip bags, many soft plastics that were previously discarded can now be consolidated in Hefty EnergyBags bright orange bags and converted into energy to produce cement rather than ending up in a landfill,” according to the company’s website.

Once the Hefty EnergyBags have been collected, they are sorted from other incoming materials at First Star’s MRF, baled and transported to energy conversion facilities. “This colorful addition to Omaha’s waste management and recycling program has the potential to minimize landfill waste and improve municipal recycling efficiency,” the company says.

Easdale said these flexible plastic packages have been a challenge for the MRF, as residents include them in their recycling bins in acts of “wishful recycling.”

While much of this material is destined for pyrolysis, she said First Star also is working to test other applications, such as recycling the material into fence posts and wallboard.

The program began in October 2016 with 6,000 households. Using RecycleBank, enthusiastic recyclers were targeted in this phase, Easdale said. The program has since been expanded to include all of Omaha and the neighboring communities or Papillon, La Vista, Ralston and Louisville, Nebraska. Bellevue, Nebraska, will be added later this year.  

Easdale said the messaging was kept simple with the slogan, “If you don’t bin it bag it.”

As of February, she said 13 tons of plastics have been diverted through the program in Omaha alone.

The effort required collaboration among the city, MRFs, Reynolds and residents, Easdale added.

ISRI2018 was April 14-19 in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.