PANEL SEEKING TO SHORE EBBING MARKETS

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SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIF. — A panel of speakers explored ways of supporting plastics recycling in the face of weak markets, at the Plastics, Packaging and Recycling Symposium, held April 23-24 at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

A prime example of a plastic that lacks market demand is recycled low density polyethylene, said John Ryan, general manager of Sloco Recycles in San Luis Obispo.

``We are dealing in the marketplace daily, intensively, [to] find someone who will actually take that off our hands at any price,'' Ryan said.

Sloco operates curbside and commercial recycling programs.

``We have the biggest problem in recycling plastic bottles and small-mouth containers because markets do not exist for some of these types of vessels,'' he said.

The company handles coded resin types 1-7.

The program has ``no problems with paper, cardboard, glass or aluminum, but plastic and plastic packaging has been our biggest challenge.''

Ryan suggested that consumers should ``pre-cycle.''

``If you are buying packaging that is not recyclable, you are encouraging the packaging industry to continue to produce them,'' he said.

San Luis Obispo Mayor Allen Settle, who moderated the panel discussion, characterized the gravity of the ``war'' for recycling: ``Once lost, it's forever lost.''

Not enough polystyrene exists to make effective use of curbside collection, said Robert Mallon, vice president of Marko Foam Products Inc.

Pressure from consumers, regulators and the media led the Corona, Calif.-based PS and foam manufacturer into a recycling program in 1992. The firm also has plants in Hayward, Calif.; Salt Lake City; and Wilsonville, Ore.

In 1996, Marko lost money in recycling 1.5 million pounds of PS for rigid plastic products and reintegration into packaging products. ``We might break even this year'' on the recycling, but in the meantime, ``we're doing what is right for the community,'' Mallon said.

Mallon also is chairman of the Washington-based Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers.

Life-cycle control may be an answer, according to Sam Vigil, professor of environmental engineering at Cal Poly.

Consumers in Europe pay a $50-$100 pre-disposal fee when they buy plastic-encased electronic products. Eventually, the user returns the old product to a dealer or industry-sponsored site and gets the fee back.

``You can't throw it away,'' Vigil explained.

One such site exists in the United States, he said.

AT&T Corp. spinoff Lucent Technologies Inc. accepts old telephone equipment at an Illinois site, recovering and recycling metals and mercury or other hazardous materials.

``Then they get to a problem,'' Vigil said. ``They have a mass of plastic which they have no use for. That goes to the landfill.''

Marko's Mallon likes incineration as ``part of a well-balanced environmental plan.'' He said Canadian raw material producer Nova Chemical Co. may build an incinerator in Ontario as part of a mixed-plastic processing facility that includes a gasification waste-to-energy operation.

``Incineration is a necessary, positive way to deal with solid waste disposal,'' Mallon said, with single-company projects ``probably a trend we will see as time goes on.''

Panelists agreed that the technology exists, but the politics of siting and capital requirements will prevent much U.S. incinerator construction.

Other speakers and exhibitors addressed these issues in interviews.

Consumer encouragement of products that promote less material sends a message to industry, said Ellen Grijalva, who gave a talk on ``Packaging Process Control.''

``I think there is a lot of misinformation regarding landfills, what is going into them, what kinds of products are recyclable and how they are being used,'' said the sales engineer with energy control integrator Esys in Bakersfield, Calif.

Foreign markets for U.S. recyclables are drying up, said Bob Nicholson, utilities conservation technician with the city of San Luis Obispo.

Indonesia is doing more of its own recycling and is getting feedstock from Europe.

``They are less interested in our plastics,'' he said.

Besides, he said, domestic firms need to find end uses for those products at home, instead of ``just shipping them over to be turned back into products to be sold back to us.''