Bill O’Grady — a former board member and influential chairman of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, a current board member of Resource Recycling, a longtime executive at California recycling company Talco Plastics and, according to him, a man who wandered into the industry decades ago essentially by accident — is possibly, probably, most likely retiring this year.

“I’d like to say that. I’ve planted that seed as far back as, I’d say, maybe three years ago, and I’m still here,” O’Grady said during an interview in February. He was in the thick of regulatory reporting and other duties he felt obligated to see through to the end. But the chance to travel and spend more time with his three grandchildren beckoned.

“I’d like to be doing a lot less by the summer months,” he said, though he might make periodic appearances a few times a year after that. “It’d be hard for me to admit that I’m going to leave the plastics community entirely.”

Steve Alexander, APR president and CEO, said as chairman, O’Grady led APR’s transition from a volunteer organization to a professionally managed one, which included Alexander’s hiring in 2005. Alexander called him “an icon in plastics recycling” and mentor whose vision made APR into an internationally recognized trade association. (APR owns Resource Recycling, Inc.)

“You could argue he’s one of the very few people who are responsible for the plastic recycling industry to be where it is today,” Alexander said. “No one has done more to advance the cause of plastics recycling.”

O’Grady had a knack for building consensus even among competitors, as many APR members are, said J. Scott Saunders, general manager at KW Plastics Recycling Division in Alabama and another APR board member. He said the ability to herd cats was essential to APR’s carrying on through its split from the American Chemistry Council.

“Without Bill’s leadership, I believe the whole organization would have stumbled and fallen apart,” Saunders told Resource Recycling. “We’re going to miss him, man, and the industry is going to be very different without him.”

Nicole Janssen, president of Denton Plastics in Oregon and a member of the APR and Resource Recycling boards, said O’Grady has always been someone whom she looked up to and who shared long discussions about the industry’s values and outlooks.

“He has helped me to grow as an industry leader,” she wrote in an email. “I’m proud to call him a friend as well.”

Looking back, looking ahead

Before his rise to APR’s heights, O’Grady was studying veterinary medicine and other sciences in college, he said. Then his family bought a small recycling company in Santa Ana, California, and asked him to help run it. He agreed, settled in, and when the opportunity came along to turn back to the veterinary field, he let it pass by.

“I kind of got into recycling by default,” O’Grady said. “I felt a sense of accomplishment because I was doing something that I actually believed in.”

Years later, in 1995, he moved on to Talco, an extruder and pelletizer focused primarily on polystyrene and polyolefins, where O’Grady serves as vice president and general manager overseeing the company’s post-consumer division in Long Beach and its Corona facility. O’Grady joined the APR board shortly after.

“Certainly, the landscape has changed over my tenure,” O’Grady said of the industry. “It’s gone from a very fledgling, nondescript environment to a very succinct and structured environment—in terms of public perspective, industry perspective, brand owner perspective, consumer product perspective.”

With that maturation, however, have come challenges that must be addressed, he said:

  • Chemical recycling

“The biggest challenge today of course would probably be the relationship with chemical recycling versus mechanical recycling, and how that relates to the sustainability of the industry overall,” O’Grady said.

“It needs to prove itself,” he went on, so that the benefits of chemical and mechanical approaches can be weighed and compared. The Recycling Partnership took a similar tack in its February position statement on the burgeoning industry, which has drawn skepticism from a wide range of recycling and environmental groups.

“We need more clarity, and the chemical recyclers need to be accountable,” O’Grady said.

  • Dollars and sense of PCR

O’Grady also pointed to the fluctuating market dynamics of post-consumer resin, which has become more appealing to brands with high-profile sustainability targets but often comes with a higher price tag or other challenges.

“We’re facing the need to continually promote the value and use of PCR across the board,” he said, including by emphasizing that this value stretches beyond cost savings. “There’s no simple solution to that, obviously, but the end user has to come to grips with the fact that post-consumer materials do not compete very well with virgin resin.”

  • Changing infrastructure

On a related point, O’Grady said that as a materials reclaimer he’s seen firsthand the gap between collection infrastructure and rising PCR demand. He pointed to moves by waste hauling companies like WM and Republic Services to extend their reach further down the post-consumer chain as a potential game-changer.

“It remains to be seen” what impact those investments will have on the plastic recycling industry overall, he said. “It could alter the landscape considerably in terms of sourcing product for post-consumer application.”

  • Plastic recycling’s reputation

The very concept of plastic recycling and its motivations increasingly have come under fire, echoing the pushback that helped spark the original plastic recycling push decades ago. Critics point to the global environmental footprint of all plastic production and the enormous variety of polymers that recycling at scale has failed to capture—the “fraud of plastic recycling,” as a widely cited report from the Center for Climate Integrity recently put it.

O’Grady said misinformation and misinterpretation are painting a negative picture of his industry, which “can diminish the value of plastic recycling and the use of plastic material.”

“We need to proactively advocate the benefits of plastics and plastic recycling rather than react to the flavor of the day, so to speak,” he said. “And I think we need to dispel some of this negativity or some of this fear of using plastics.

“I don’t think in my lifetime we’re going to get rid of plastic,” O’Grady added. “It’s here to stay. It’s not going anywhere.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Plastics Recycling Update. Subscribe today for access to all print content.