A Gathering Perfect Storm

Features - Commodity Focus

A number of factors are converging, positively affecting the outlook for the plastics recycling industry.

July 8, 2013

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that of the MSW (municipal solid waste) America generates, more than 31 million tons (in excess of 65 billion pounds) per year are plastics (www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/plastics.htm).

This is a big number by almost any standard and it would be considerably greater if plastics from industrial sources and end-of-life durable goods, such as automobiles and appliances, were included.

On the other hand, while the United States probably has the highest per-capita generation rate of waste plastics in the world, it also has one of the lowest recycling rates for plastics from MSW, estimated to be about 8 percent by the EPA (www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/plastics.htm).

The good news from all of this is that communities and businesses have begun to realize that plastics are valuable resources and should be collected and recycled rather than discarded as waste.

The Numbers
Plastic bottles have been collected and sorted for many years, largely because they can be easily identified and segregated from mixed streams of materials by humans and/or machines, such as NIR (near-infrared) scanning and sorting equipment. In “Plastic Recycling Collection National Reach Study: 2012 Update,” a study commissioned by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Sonoma, Calif.-based Moore Recycling Associates estimates that at least 94 percent of the U.S. population has access to PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) bottle and cap recycling.

However, as the same study points out, access does not necessarily lead to high recycling rates, as the recycling rate for PET and HDPE bottles is estimated to be only about 30 percent. (See the caveats discussed below about actual recycling rates.)

In a separate study for the ACC, “2011 National Postconsumer Non-Bottle Rigid Plastic Recycling Report,” released in January 2013, Moore Recycling Associates found that the amount of “nonbottle rigid plastics recovered grew to over 930 million pounds in 2011 from a bit over 250 million pounds in 2007.”

Plastics recycling from durable goods such as electronics, appliances and automobiles, has been relatively low in the U.S., but this also is beginning to change, as discussed in the last section of this article, Shifting Landscape, on page 46.

An important caveat: It should be noted that actual values for “recovered plastics” and “recycling rates” are difficult to determine and that the estimates noted above are naturally overstated from a recycling rate standpoint because they are mostly “gross figures,” reported as the weight of plastics collected, somewhat sorted and usually baled before being sold to traders, brokers or processors. This is the standard procedure used by the EPA for scrap steams. While this overstatement is offset to some extent by the fact that it is difficult to obtain accurate numbers for plastics from all collection facilities in the U.S., the reality is that these figures might be more accurately referred to as material collected and diverted rather than as recycled.

Actual recycling rates are lower than collection and sales rates because not everything in the bales is recycled or even recyclable. This is especially true with the mixed plastic bales.

As an example, in a rather extensive waste study, the Waste Monitoring Program 2006 Material Recovery Facility Assessment, carried out by King County, Wash., in 2006, it was determined that the PET bottle product created by four different area MRFs (material recovery facilities) comprised only about 84 percent of the PET target bottle material. About 6 percent nonplastics contamination and about 9 percent non-PET recyclable or marginally recyclable materials were found. This is important because PET bottles have traditionally created the highest purity recycled plastics bales because of the relative ease with which humans and/or NIR optical sorting machines can separate most of the PET bottles from the rest of stream compared with other plastics in the MSW stream. This has less to do with the material and more to do with the much wider variation in shapes and colors used for most of the other rigid plastics compared with PET bottles, and the fact that many similar-looking containers can be made of more than one type of plastic. You can train a human rather easily to pick out PET bottles, and to some extent HDPE bottles, from a MRF sorting line, but beyond that it gets more difficult. The same holds for existing whole-part sorting equipment.

This suggests that the contamination level in other plastic streams, particularly mixed plastics, can be even greater; which, indeed, is the experience of the author in less-sophisticated and smaller “spot” characterizations of plastics from a variety of MRF-derived mixed plastics. In fact, the contamination levels in mixed plastic scrap (and other mixed scrap) is one of the primary reasons that China recently initiated what is known as Operation Green Fence—a significant increase in the enforcement of scrap quality standards. Operation Green Fence is discussed in more detail in the section Shifting Landscape on page 46.

Export Heavy

In a Nov. 2, 2011, presentation titled, “Plastics: The Big Picture” delivered at a Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) event, Jerry Powell of Resource Recycling estimated that about 4.5 billion pounds of scrap plastics were exported from the U.S. in 2010, compared with about 500 million in 1997, a nearly 10-fold increase in just 13 years. This number is substantially higher than the 8 percent of the 31 billion pounds estimated by EPA as recovered for recycling.

The large difference is likely because of the different fractions included in each statistic. For example, industrial scrap is not included in the EPA numbers. Differences are also to be expected, given the difficulty of getting accurate numbers for plastics scrap and waste.

In any case, a large amount of the plastic scrap from the U.S. is exported, especially to China. Monostreams, such as PET and HDPE bottles or postindustrial scrap, are more likely to be recycled in the U.S. because less separation is required. Some of this material is reused in food-contact applications, but most finds its way into less-demanding applications, such as nonfood packaging, pipe, lawn and garden, film/sheet and plastic-lumber, according to the “2011 United States National Postconsumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report” from the American Chemistry Council and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.

Mixed and more contaminated plastic streams are more often exported. Moore Recycling estimates that about 85 percent of the resin-segregated (monostreams) collected in the U.S. also was processed in the U.S., while more than 80 percent of the mixed resin plastic collected was exported, primarily to China.

Some of these plastics are processed and the resulting waste materials disposed of in manners that would not be allowed in the U.S. Some of the waste and byproducts (plastics not sortable by simple automated techniques or by humans) from these informal recycling operations end up in rivers and streams and ultimately in our oceans. These practices can lead to human health and safety risks as well as damage to the ecosystem.

We seem to care about how our stuff is made (for example, the public outcries against companies such as Nike and more recently Apple about working conditions in contracted factories). However, the un-making of our stuff, particularly the material recovery and reprocessing aspects, can be much more intense and potentially risky to humans and ecosystems if not done properly compared with the assembly of products. While some may consider that this “environmental arbitrage” of our waste and scrap streams is the concern of the importing country than ours, it is becoming increasingly clear that improper handling of plastics (and other waste streams) has global implications. The risks to the health of our oceans and sea life have been well-documented by researchers from all over the world, and it’s clear that the oceans are an incredibly important part of the global ecosystem.

Furthermore, recent studies suggest that plastics waste in the oceans might actually preferentially absorb some chemical contamination in the seas. While one might imagine that this could be turned into an advantage, these plastic particles are often ingested by sea creatures, and the chemicals can then be releached out of the plastics, creating a toxic meal for the fish ingesting the plastics or for the creatures, such as humans, consuming the fish, according to C.M. Rochman, E. Hoh., B.T. Hentschel and S. Kaye in their article “Long-Term Field Measurement of Sorption of Organic Contaminants to Five Types of Plastic Pellets: Implications for Plastic Marine Debris,” which appeared in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

So our “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the handling of our end-of-life stuff is perhaps not as out of sight as many might have thought.

Shifting Landscape
Several major incidents are taking place that are likely to lead to changes in the recovery and recycling of plastics in the U.S.

One of the most recent has to do with a realization by China and other scrap-importing countries that some of the current import and recycling practices are not sustainable.

Operation Green Fence.
The export of scrap with various amounts of contamination to developing countries has led some destinations to increase controls on customs and domestic recycling practices.

China, where the majority of U.S. exported plastic scrap is shipped, implemented a few months ago what is being called Operation Green Fence. In essence, China is understandably saying “send us resources, not waste” by significantly increasing the enforcement of its restrictions on contamination levels in scrap and recycled resources that are allowed to be imported. The specs make it difficult to import mixed plastic scrap of the quality currently produced by many MRFs and some durable goods recyclers.

This trend is putting pressure on collectors and processors, who only lightly process the materials and sell their products to brokers and traders. It appears to be welcome news for U.S. recyclers, as it levels the playing field.

It also will benefit the environments surrounding the informal recyclers and ultimately the recyclers and workers in China and other countries, as it will force exporters in the United States to reduce the amount of waste material transported all over the world that can end up deposed of in inappropriate ways.

Shredder Residue.
The U.S. generates about 5 million tons per year of automotive shredder residue (ASR), or auto shredder fluff. It is more appropriately called shredder residue (SR) because processors recover and recycle many items with high metal content beyond autos.

This residue, which essentially comprises the byproducts remaining after the shredding and subsequent ferrous and nonferrous metal recovery processes, has anywhere from 20 to 30 percent valuable plastics in it along with materials such as rubber, foam, textiles, wood, glass, missed metals and other nonplastics.

This material is mostly landfilled in the U.S., as recovery of residual metals from SR was difficult and recovery and recycling of the plastics was difficult and legally risky because of unclear regulations.

Several developments have changed this significantly:

  • Metal values, especially copper, have increased substantially.
  • Downstream processing technologies have developed to a point where they can recover the majority of residual metals from complex SR streams. These systems are being installed by shredders across North America, so upgrading large volumes of SR is already beginning to take place in the U.S.
  • The U.S. EPA published in the Federal Register April 5, 2013, an interpretation making it clear that the recycling industry association) plastics can be recycled from ASR legally in the U.S. with appropriate voluntary procedures worked out with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI). This is something companies in Europe and parts of Asia had been doing for years.
  • The technology to separate and purify plastics from such complex streams was developed and implemented on large scales in Europe, paving the way for U.S. companies to do the same.

These developments could lead to a significant increase in the amount of recycled plastics available in North America. Nathan Associates published a study in December 2010, which was referenced by ISRI and EPA to help support the interpretation noted above. The report estimates that the recycling of plastics from SR could lead to approximately 1.75 million tons of additional plastics recycled annually, with substantial investment, job creation and overall economic impact of more than $5.3 billion. (See http:// federal.eregulations.us/rulemaking/document/EPA-HQ-OPPT-2012-0902-0006.)

The rate of collection of e-scrap in the U.S. has increased significantly, and this is leading to increased volumes of byproducts from e-scrap recycling activities. ISRI reports that the volume of electronics recycled in the U.S. grew from about 800 million tons in 2002 to about 3.5 million tons in 2010 for more than a four-fold increase in eight years.

As with other mixed streams of plastics, much of the residual plastics from domestic recycling is exported for informal recycling. This material is particularly attractive to brokers and traders because the metals, while low in content, are high in value—mostly copper and sometimes small amounts of precious metals from residual wire and circuit board fragments missed by metal recyclers.

While most of the plastics from e-scrap, as well as much of the metals, are sold to overseas brokers and traders, this is becoming increasingly difficult because of the increased enforcement of Chinese scrap import specifications as part of the green fence initiative described above, and domestic processors are looking for ways to at least upgrade their plastics as described above with SR. This should lead to an increased amount of plastics processing and domestically available upgraded plastics from e-scrap.

Green Market Pull
A growing number of large manufacturers are looking to increase their use of recycled plastics. This is being driven by “market access” standards, such as EPEAT (Electronic Product Evaluation Assessment Tool, www.EPEAT.net), as well as by the perception among a growing number of brands that consumers are making more decisions based on sustainability criteria, including recyclability and recycled content.

Manufacturers also are beginning to look at “closing the loop” on plastics as a way to win and keep customers and to hedge their supply chains from the upward march of raw material costs.

Interestingly, in the past, manufacturers might have hidden the fact that they were using recycled plastics, but today companies such as HP, Lexmark, Philips, Nespresso, Coca-Cola, Ford, Renault and many others advertise their use of recycled plastics on their websites, packaging and/or point-of-purchase materials.

Electrolux is so proud of its use of recycled plastics that it molds the percentage right onto the front of some of its products and has created a “Vac from the Sea” project to raise awareness about the challenges with plastic waste in our oceans.

New Domestic Opportunities

It seems the development of policies in the U.S. and China as well as the availability of recycled plastics from growing collection could lead to a significant increase in domestic plastics processing in the U.S. This bodes well for domestic recyclers and for manufacturers looking for more sustainable sources of plastics, especially as they begin to onshore more manufacturing.

The author is president and founder of MBA Polymers, Richmond, Calif. He can be contacted at