Long-term opportunity

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China’s import ban on postconsumer plastic scrap offers opportunities for U.S. recyclers.

May 7, 2018

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 plastic recycling.

*Producer price index is based on December 1980 average prices as 100; source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Maite Quinn, business development and marketing manager for Sims Municipal Recycling, New York, 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 (ARP), Washington.

Alexander said 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., so the organization is seeking to increase demand for and enhance the value of the material domestically.

The APR is engaging in customized brand owner training programs with the goal of reducing the amount of contamination in plastic packaging. Alexander 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, he said.

Regarding communities that have restricted 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.” Instead, he urged communities to be transparent about their actions if landfilling was the only viable option.

Saunders said K.W. Plastics processes some 500 million pounds of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) annually, with most of its volume going into traditional markets where color is not a consideration.

“Once you pull something out of the recycling stream, it’s hard to get it back in in an acceptable fashion.” – Steve Alexander of the Association of Plastic Recyclers

He added that K.W. is “typically short on material; we can’t buy enough.” This situation has been exacerbated by a reduction in available material as sorting facilities respond to demands to improve recovered paper quality by slowing their processing lines.

Saunders sees China’s actions as a “very large opportunity” for domestic processors. “We have the capacity and markets available,” he says of K.W. “We are a ready, willing and able market for every pound you’ll generate.”

However, some plastics, such as flexible packaging, will continue to be challenging to recycle, and that’s where the Hefty EnergyBag Program could prove helpful.

Easdale said while much of the EnergyBag material First Star handles is destined for pyrolysis, the company is testing other applications, such as recycling it into fence posts and wallboard.