Plastics recycling’s challenges and potential

Departments - Plastics

Before plastics recycling's promise can be realized, issues must be addressed.

November 1, 2018

While Surendra Borad Patawari of Gemini Corp. NV, Antwerp, Belgium, said he saw considerable potential for the plastics recycling industry in the future, the chair of the Bureau of International Recycling’s (BIR’s) Plastics Committee acknowledged that the present is not without difficulties.

Patawari chaired his last Plastics Committee plenary meeting during the BIR World Recycling Convention (Round-Table Sessions) in early October in London. He is stepping down after 12 years of service on the committee.

“First it was China which placed restrictions on imports of plastics scrap,” he said. “It was followed by restrictions in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan. Now it is India to where you cannot export the goods, primarily because import licenses have not been extended.”

Steve Wong, executive president of the China Scrap Plastic Association and managing director of Fukutomi Co. Ltd., Hong Kong, said plastic scrap import restrictions imposed by the Chinese government have made China a “buyers’ market.”

In response to these restrictions, recycling operations have migrated from China to other Southeast Asian countries, he said. However, those countries lack the infrastructure needed to cope with the millions of tons of plastics scrap being imported, Wong added.

Sally Houghton of Plastic Recycling Corp. of California, based in Sonoma, said the U.S. market for plastic scrap is “holding steady” despite China’s import ban. She added that polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was showing signs of upward growth despite low bale prices in early October.

Sally Houghton of Plastic Recycling Corp. of California said U.S. recycling infrastructure was caught off guard by China’s actions cutting off postconsumer plastic scrap imports.

Tub and lid bales, which are comprised of No. 5, or polypropylene (PP), also were seeing “healthy demand,” Houghton said. She added that U.S. recycling infrastructure was caught off guard by China’s actions cutting off postconsumer plastic scrap imports. That country’s absence from the U.S. market also is creating less pricing competition.

Keith Freegard, vice chair of the British Plastics Federation’s Recyclers Group and associate consultant at Axion Polymers, headquartered in Greater Manchester, England, was the guest speaker during the Plastics Committee plenary meeting. He said the U.K. “could do better” in the area of plastics recycling. Freegard identified a lack of consistency in collection, public confusion surrounding what can be recycled and the dual needs of increasing demand for recycled plastics and improving design for recyclability.

Looking forward, Patawari expressed his hopes for plastics recycling, saying, “There cannot be a better proposition than the business of plastics recycling.” He pointed to the availability of scrap and investment dollars and to rising governmental and public awareness of plastic scrap globally, saying that with “bold steps” from entrepreneurs, “each of us can profit immensely by engaging in plastics recycling” while at the same time “making the world a better place to live.”