In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have published stories questioning the viability of plastics recycling – many based on a recent Greenpeace report. Meanwhile, states are implementing laws intended to bolster materials recovery overall. Add to the mix a softening resin market with rapidly falling prices.
It was against this backdrop of stress and change that about 330 plastics recycling professionals from across the U.S. gathered at the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) meeting in Austin, Texas last week.
Steve Alexander, president of APR, opened the meeting by diving straight into the recent Greenpeace report, which uses suspect data analysis in an attempt to demonstrate that no plastic is recyclable and to bolster the group’s argument that all single-use plastic items should be banned in favor of reusable packaging.
The document has drawn widespread media coverage, as well as a critique independently written by Plastics Recycling Update. (APR owns Resource Recycling, Inc., publisher of Plastics Recycling Update.)
Alexander said activists are targeting the plastics recycling industry because recycling plastic offers a solution that runs counter to their narrative that all plastics need to be banned.
“This is all about banning plastics and they’re looping you in. Why? Because you are the antithesis of their story,” Alexander told attendees.
Alexander said he believes the environmentalist community views APR as the “greenwashing arm of the petrochemical industry.” The world will always have plastics, he said, so the key is to ensure materials are recyclable and recycled, reducing their carbon footprint, he said.
“Trust me, you’re solving this [plastic waste] problem working with us,” he added, drawing applause.
The following are a few other major takeaways from the event held Nov. 9-11.
Erratic markets explained
Emily Friedman, senior market editor for recycling plastics at research firm ICIS, noted the recent crash in PET bale prices, which she attributed to several factors: seasonal supply increases in the summer, higher interest rates, a slowing housing market leading to less carpet production (over one-third of PET bottle scrap demand in the U.S. is for carpet, she noted) and an overall reduction in demand coupled with an oversupply in inventories.
Since the fall from record high prices to record lows, bale prices roughly a month ago began to rebound somewhat. She sees RPET markets as still struggling to decouple from virgin PET, and she noted that an influx of imported PET, which is now enjoying significant drops in ocean freight rates, has put downward pressure on prices.
If domestic PET bale prices rebound, they’re still going to have to compete with the cheap virgin cargoes, she noted. That being said, she sees strong brand owner demand for RPET, and over the long term, there’s still a structural shortage of supply to meet the demand.
During a separate session, the Market Development Committee Meeting, Greg Janson, a committee member and president and CEO of Granite Peak Plastics, noted another market pressure facing post-consumer resin (PCR): wide-spec virgin plastic that petrochemical companies dump on the market.
They may not even realize what they’re doing but they are destroying stable markets for recycling,” he said.
New faces, and the loss of an industry veteran
With 262 total members, APR continues to grow as an organization, adding 40 member organizations in 2022.
APR recently hired Kate Bailey, who worked for nearly two decades at Colorado nonprofit recycling organization Eco-Cycle and who has become a leading voice on policies such as extended producer responsibility (EPR). As APR’s chief policy director, “she is going to be your voice with state and federal policymakers,” Alexander said. APR has also hired Jazlin Lopez, who previously interned at the U.S. Plastics Pact, to serve as the group’s digital communications and analytics associate.
To date, all APR employees have been part-time contract employees, Alexander said, but the organization plans to transition employees to full-time employment with benefits. He also announced that APR’s longtime Film and Flexible Program director, Sandi Childs, is retiring from the organization.
Alexander delivered a moving tribute to Dave Cornell, APR technical director emeritus who recently passed away. An industry veteran, Cornell created APR’s widely referenced Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability and the organization’s plastics recycling testing protocols, among other contributions. He’s also the only member of the plastics recycling industry in the Plastics Hall of Fame.
A memorial was held for Cornell on Saturday, Nov. 12.
“The greatest tribute we can give to his legacy is to keep on keeping on to solve this damn problem,” Alexander said.
Policy action heats up
During multiple sessions, APR staff and members noted the increase in plastics-related policy decisions at the state and federal levels. Alexander pointed to the importance of the Federal Trade Commission’s pending update of the Green Guides, which cover marketing of products based on environmental attributes, such as recyclable and recycled content. Last updated in 2012, the guides aren’t enforceable regulations, but they’re closely watched.
APR has hired a former FTC staffer to help engage with the FTC, particularly on issues of packaging labeling and communications. He acknowledged the FTC is getting overrun with comments from industry groups on the issue.
“They told us last week they’re going to be putting out a request for comment between now and the end of the year,” Alexander said.
In Congress, Bailey noted, there are nearly 20 active recycling-related bills.
“I haven’t seen 20 total bills in the whole 20 years I’ve been in recycling,” she said. “Definitely an understatement to say these are fast-moving times.”
Anna Karakitsos, principal of Bracewell, which is APR’s contract lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., agreed that “we have seen an astounding amount of legislation introduced over the last two years” focused on recycling and waste reduction.
In terms of the results of the Nov. 8 election, she predicts the divided control will mean “middle-of-the-road type policy” for recycling sustainability. “Division means that you don’t get to explore more extreme options,” she said.
One place where control remains firmly in the hands of one party is California, where Democrats are the majority in both chambers and continue to occupy the governor’s mansion. Bruce Magnani, legislative advocate at Houston Magnani and Associates, which is APR’s contract lobbyist in California, noted that sustainability with an anti-plastics bias is still alive in the Golden State. However, state policymakers have passed bills aimed at supporting recycling, including the major extended producer responsibility (EPR) bill SB 54, which validates his belief that policymakers still view recycling in a positive way, he said.
In addition to California, Oregon, Colorado and Maine have also passed EPR for packaging. Resa Dimino of consulting firm Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) predicted that others to watch for upcoming EPR action include Washington state, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and maybe Minnesota and Illinois.
“I think those are going to be the most likely active states as we proceed into 2023,” she said.
A recent Plastics News article explored how Democratic control of several states could mean EPR bills are likely to gain traction.
Impacts of thermoforms in PET bales
Research led by RRS quantified just how much yield is lost when PET bottle bales include higher percentages of PET thermoforms. In short, it’s a lot.
Dimino of RRS laid out high-level conclusions of the second phase of the PET thermoform research project, which included trials at an Indorama Ventures PET recycling plant. Bales made up of roughly 15% thermoforms and 85% bottles, 25% thermoforms and 75% bottles, and 40% thermoforms and 60% bottles were recycled. A standard curbside PET bottle bale has a clear flake yield of about 51%, but that percentage dropped to as low as 25% with the 40% thermoform bale, she said.
“The bottom line is the higher the level of thermoforms, the lower the yield,” she said, adding that “these results certainly suggest that moving thermoforms in a segregated stream is going to be the most efficient path forward.”
The good news is that after the clear flakes were recycled into plaques for testing, the higher level of thermoform content had no significant impact on product quality in terms of color or specks, and it didn’t have much effect on the intrinsic viscosity, said Kristi Hansen of Plastics Forming Enterprises, the independent lab that conducted the recycling testing.
After the presentation, Crystal Howe of Ontario, Canada bottled water producer Ice River Springs, cautioned against making further sorting decisions based solely on the study, noting that her company’s PET recycling division, Blue Mountain Plastics Recycling, is constantly making adjustments to its processing system to account for different feedstocks. Her colleague, Amanda Fockler, added that the company is currently recycling bales composed of 40% PET thermoforms into new bottles.
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