EcoPrime success drives Envision expansion

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TAMPA, FLA. (Feb. 23, 2:15 p.m. ET) — Success with its EcoPrime line of recycled high density polyethylene will allow Envision Plastics to install its second production line in Chino, Calif., by the end of the year.

But plenty of challenges remain for Envision and other recyclers, vice president Tamsin Ettefagh said at the 2012 Plastics News Executive Forum, held Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Tampa.

EcoPrime is the industry’s only post-consumer HDPE that’s been approved for food-contact use by the Food & Drug Administration. It’s used in bottles for food and beverage, personal-care and household applications. Well-known consumer products makers using EcoPrime include Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Prestone and L’Oreal.

“The sign of a good quality recycler is who they sell to,” Ettefagh said. “We’re the only plastic recycler with a national procurement and supply scope.”

Envision currently operates 24 million pounds of EcoPrime in Reidsville, N.C., where the 11-year-old firm is based. Producing that capacity uses 91.6 percent less energy than making the same amount of virgin HDPE would, according to Ettefagh. EcoPrime production also reduces carbon dioxide equivalents, carbon emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption and gasoline use.

Challenges facing recyclers include the lack of a clear public policy on post-consumer material, and a business model in which customers make their buying decisions on a month-to-month basis, with no long-term contracts that would allow recyclers to forecast demand.

The ups and downs of the recycling market also often make it difficult for recyclers to borrow money from banks, who prefer more predictable customers.

But at the same time, corporate mandates are driving demand for recycled material. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is requiring its suppliers to reduce the amount of packaging they use by 2013, creating an opportunity for recycled material.

The amount of HDPE recycled in the U.S. also has grown from about 15 percent in 1993 to its current total of almost 30 percent, although Ettefagh said that number is slightly skewed by a recent decrease in overall HDPE production.

And increased demand for recycled HDPE actually made North American prices for the material increase during 2011, even as prices for prime HDPE fell slightly.

Ettefagh also clarified the sometimes misunderstood relationship between prime and recycled HDPE. “Prime is not the competition,” she said. “Without prime, we wouldn’t exist.”

The market also could benefit if resin makers agree to place markers in their material that would allow for easier separation. That would be a boon for Envision’s Prisma-brand resins, which are colored post-consumer HDPE resins sorted by Envision’s proprietary color-sorting process. Prisma materials can reduce customers’ needs for standard plastic colorants, Ettefagh said.