Recycling rate for non-bottle rigid plastics shows impressive gain

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WASHINGTON (Feb. 8, 10 a.m. ET) — The recycling of non-bottle rigid plastics nearly doubled in 2010, rising a dramatic 72 percent on a top of a nearly 33 percent gain in 2009.

The impressive two-year jump in the recycling of items such as householder containers, carts, crates, buckets, toys, lawn furniture, tubs and lids, and electronics and computer scrap boosted the amount of pounds of those materials collected in 2010 to almost 826.7 million pounds — which is more than twice as high as the 360.8 million pounds collected in 2008.

That growing stream of recycled materials was one of the drivers behind the decision last summer by KW Plastics Recycling to build a $5 million to $6 million wash line for bulky rigid plastics—which is expected to be fully operational in 90 to 120 days—at its giant plastic recycling complex in Troy, Ala. That line will have the capacity to process 150 million pounds annually of bulky rigid plastics made from injection-grade high density polyethylene.

Approximately 29 percent, or 238.8 million pounds, of the non-bottle rigid plastics recycled in 2010 were made from HDPE, second only to polypropylene, which was 44 percent, or 363.4 million pounds, of the materials collected, according to the data compiled by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. and released Feb. 8 by the American Chemistry Council.

“I really believe that bulky rigids and baled PP will follow the same track as mixed color HDPE did in the 1990s and become a solid recycling stream very quickly,” said Scott Saunders, general manager of KW Plastics Recycling in a phone interview. “Once people are convinced there is processing capacity and customer demand, you will see a domino effect with material recovery facilities separating the material, as they are already collecting it.”

He said KW is already buying monthly “in excess of 30 million pounds” of bulky rigid plastics for processing in Troy.

The report said that the biggest jump in materials collected, by resin type, was in the amount of PP collected. The amount of non-bottle rigid plastics PP collected virtually tripled in 2010, as it went from 27 percent, or roughly 129 million pounds, of the rigid plastics collected in 2009 to 363.7 million and 44 percent of the total in 2010.

“What that tells us is that there has been a large amount of polypropylene hiding in plain sight,” said Dave Cornell, technical director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers. “But collecting the diverse end uses for versatile polypropylene is not simple, which explains why APR members have put in the time and effort to open a new area of postconsumer items for recycling.”

Indeed, much of the overall rapid growth in the collection of non-bottle rigid plastics reflects the efforts and initiatives the past three years by plastics recycling groups, most particularly ARP, to develop that group of materials as another stream of materials that can join PET and HDPE containers as a solid recycling stream.

Late last summer, for example, APR began a six-month, nationwide pilot program to recycle the rigid plastic containers used in the backrooms of the bakery, deli and seafood counters at grocery stores. APR estimates that medium and large supermarkets in the U.S. generate 350 million pounds of rigid plastics behind their counters and that 60 percent of that, or 212 million pounds, stacks easily.

“This is low-hanging fruit that we need to capture to move rigid plastics recycling forward” and develop a third recycling stream, said Elizabeth Bedard, director of the rigid plastics recycling program at APR when discussing that program with Plastics News.

APR has also conducted bale audit surveys, identified seven types of bulky rigid bales, and put together bale specifications for two of those seven bale types, with the others still under development.

The rigid plastics report is the second from ACC this week to report improvement in a specific category of plastics recycling.

Two days ago, ACC reported that the amount of plastic bags and film recycled in 2010 increased by 14 percent to 971.8 million pounds after three consecutive years of growth rates of less than three percent.

However, in film’s case, one segment of that increase—a 27 million pound jump in the amount of plastic bags recycled—was more than offset by a 220-million pound increase in the amount of plastics generated by plastic bag production bin 2010, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

But, with regard to non-bottle rigid plastics, equally as important as the 72 percent increase in the amount of non-bottle rigid plastics collected was that the amount of that material which stayed in the U.S. and Canada virtually doubled after two straight years where the amount of available pounds to processors in those two countries had remained essentially stagnant.

Specifically, the amount of non-bottle rigid plastics that stayed in the U.S. and Canada jumped from 243.1 million pounds in 2009 to 475.8 million pounds in 2010, as 58 percent of that material collected in 2010 was processed by companies in those two countries compared to only 51 percent in 2009.

In addition, 78 percent of the non-bottle rigid resins collected that were separated by MRFs into individual recycling streams stayed in the U.S. or Canada. The majority of the non-bottle rigid plastics that were exported offshore, primarily to China, were bales of mixed plastic, with 65 percent of that material sent offshore, according to the report.

“We are discussing with cities and making sure they are aware that there are strong markets for these materials in the United States,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics market for the ACC in a phone interview.

According to the report, the main reasons for the higher amounts of non-bottle rigid plastics reported as collected were increased non-bottle rigid collection efforts across the U.S. and “continued progress” in getting more companies—especially those in the “commercial sector”—to report data.

Of the 100 largest U.S. cities, the number of cities collecting rigid plastics— in addition to plastic bottles—- doubled in just three years growing from 29 in 2008 to 59 in 2011.

The report did not provide data on the total North American capacity for processing non-bottle rigid plastics, after estimating that it stood at 627 million pounds annually in 2009. Nor did it provide data on end markets for use of the recycled non-bottle plastics materials.

In addition, there was no specific breakdown by the type of goods recycled as contained in the report for 2009.

The previous report said that in 2009 two-thirds of the material collected was from durable goods such as pallets, crates, carts, 5-gallon buckets and electronic housings; and the rest from non-durable goods such as HDPE tubs, PP cups and similar food containers.

Similarly, last year’s report said that household containers accounted for almost half—over 48 percent—of the non-bottle rigid plastics collected in 2009, and that bulky rigid plastics—things such as carts, crates, buckets, baskets, toys and lawn furniture—represented another 19 percent and electronics and computer scrap another four percent.

The information for the current report was based on post-consumer recovery data reported by 27 U.S. and Canadian plastic reclaimers and 25 exporters. The report with 2009 numbers was based on data from 25 U.S. and Canadian plastic reclaimers and 35 exporters; the report with 2008 numbers was based on data from 19 processors and 25 exporters.