At the APR fall meeting, roughly 250 experts gathered for committee meetings and expert presentations. | YUTHANA CHORADET NESS/Shutterstock

Plastics recycling professionals converged last week to discuss market dynamics, emerging technologies and other key industry trends.

The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) held its fall meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. Oct. 1-3, bringing roughly 250 experts together for committee meetings and expert presentations. The meeting was held shortly after two large PET-focused companies made news by notifying APR they had decided to leave the group.

Below are some of the topics of focus at the Arizona meeting.

(Resource Recycling, Inc., parent company of Plastics Recycling Update, is owned by APR.)

End market growth: APR’s initiative to increase end market demand for post-consumer resin (PCR) has seen significant growth over the past year. Companies that are part of the group’s Demand Champions program increased their use of PCR by 25.9 million pounds in the past year, which is more than triple the amount of additional demand the program spurred the prior year.  Demand increase is measured when companies increase their PCR use, develop a new application for PCR or buy durable goods made from PCR that are used in manufacturing or warehousing settings (such as pallets).

Additionally, six companies have been added to the program: EFS-Plastics, Innovative Plastech, Novolex, PepsiCo, the Toro Company and Waste Management. The Demand Champions progam launched in 2017.

Liz Bedard, director of APR’s olefins/rigid plastic recycling program, described the genesis of the program, pointing out that it was developed when several key market dynamics were converging to stymie plastics recycling. China’s National Sword initiative had cut off a major market for recovered plastics, communities were removing certain plastics from their curbside recycling programs, and oil companies were planning massive investments in virgin plastics capacity.

Enough supply to meet demand? In some sectors there is ample demand for recovered plastics, so much so that stakeholders are concerned over whether adequate supply exists to feed that appetite.

Kate Eagles, program director with APR, pointed to brand owner recycled content goals, which will “affect a significant share of the beverage market and require sizable RPET content volumes.”

The U.S. collects about 1.7 billion pounds of post-consumer PET across the country, a recycling rate of about 29%, and that figure is relatively stagnant, Eagles said. APR found that, nationally, current recovery tonnages were sufficient to support 10% recycled content in PET bottles. To achieve 30% recycled content, the PET bottle recycling rate would need to double to 60%, Eagles said.

“The data that we found confirms that the RPET supply is far from adequate to meet the demands, goals and commitments, and actually it’s slightly more challenging in the future if the market dynamics do not change,” Eagles said.

Patty Moore, executive director of the Plastic Recycling Corporation of California (PRCC), shared similar concerns specific to RPET supply and demand in California. PRCC earlier this year conducted a capacity survey of PET reclaimers in the state and estimated some future scenarios for reclamation capacity. Moore and other participants in the project came out of it “very concerned about bale supply,” she said. 

“Yes, we have the infrastructure to convert it into bottle-grade material, but will we have the bales to put into the system?” Moore asked. “It’s questionable, very questionable.”

Participants in the survey agreed that bale supply and adherence to design guidelines are “two key fundamentals that are going to make or break the system,” Moore said.

PRCC concluded that 25% recycled content is doable and realistic in terms of operating capacity, but beyond that will likely be problematic – an important finding, because recently approved (but not yet signed by the governor) legislation in California requires 50% recycled plastic use in several years’ time.

Increasing the recycling rate will likely require legislative or industry action, Moore said, noting that high recycling rates are virtually impossible without legislative or policy commitments behind them, or meaningful industry investment into infrastructure.

Statement on chemical recycling: A working group within APR has been studying chemical recycling and determining where the association comes down on the emerging industry sector. The group shared what is now APR’s official statement on chemical recycling at the event.

“APR sees opportunity to accelerate the plastics circular economy, and reduce dependency on non-renewable resources, through the intersection of mechanical and chemical recycling technologies,” reads part of the statement. The statement goes on to support investment in mechanical and chemical recycling alike.

The APR group looked to the Closed Loop Partners “Accelerating Circular Supply Chains for Plastics” report, which breaks plastics recycling down into four sectors: mechanical, purification, decomposition and conversion.

“We’ve tried to stick to that same structure and attempt to standardize the whole spectrum as plastics recycling,” said Julie Zaniewski, director of sustainability at Dow Packaging and a member of the chemical recycling workgroup.

QRS Recycling CEO Greg Janson, who is also involved with the workgroup, offered a scenario in which chemical recycling could complement mechanical recycling.

“Having come from the mixed plastic background, 40% to 50% of what goes into a 3-7 plant can’t be recovered,” he said, suggesting that a bolt-on chemical recycling system could complement a plastics recovery facility (PRF) by giving it a greater ability to process the entire stream.

Developing resin certification: APR is working on a PCR certification, which would be an optional program that certification organizations could participate in. It would not involve reclaimers getting certified but rather creating a standard criteria that certification firms would use. With this type of system, all certifying organizations that are endorsed by APR would be certifying resin in the same manner, creating consistency, according to the association.

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