Recycling challenges include container lightweighting, bale contamination

Mike Verespej

Published: October 10, 2012 6:00 am ET

Related to this story

Topics Packaging, Sustainability, Materials, Recycling, Suppliers

WASHINGTON (Oct. 10, 9:40 a.m. ET) — The impact of lightweighting — while positive from a sustainability standpoint — continues to have a dampening effort on plastic bottle recycling.

“Lightweighting meets economic and sustainability goals [and is] more economically sustainable, but in the short-term, it is not good if you are running a recycling business,” said David Cornell, technical director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.

Exacerbating that trend is that per person consumption of plastic bottles has flattened, he said.

“The long-term trend on consumption of plastic bottles/person does not show growth,” said Cornell. “It is back at 2004 levels and less than it was before the 2008 recession. And I don’t think we’re going to see growth for awhile.”

That was reflected in the amount of plastic bottles recycled in 2011. Although the total number of pounds of plastic bottles increased 45 million pounds to a record 2.624 billion, the individual numbers paint a starker picture.

The amount of PET bottles recycled increased by 47 million pounds — or just 1.7 percent — in 2011 and the amount of high density polyethylene bottles declined by slightly more than 10 million pounds, according to data in the post-consumer plastics bottle recycling report released Oct. 10 by the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council and APR.

In addition, the five-year compounded annual growth rate for plastic bottles is just 3.4 percent. PET and HDPE account for 98.2 percent of all plastic bottles recycled with polypropylene bottles accounting for another 1.7 percent.

"2011 was a stagnant year for postconsumer plastic bottle recycling, resulting in little change in the collection recycling rate,” said the report, with the all-bottle recycling rate inching up one-tenth of one percentage point to 28.9 percent, the PET rate increasing by two-tenths of a percentage point to 29.3 percent and the HDPE rate staying flat at 29.9 percent.

“We are seeing a continuation of lightweighting bottles, which hurts the pounds,” Cornell said in a phone interview. “There are more units, but we are not moving as many pounds as we would like.

Both HDPE and PET reclaimers are benefiting, however, from less material going to export.

“Exports of both PET and HDPE recycled bales decreased substantially, with sales to Asia down,” the report said. Roughly 43 percent of recycled PET and 17.6 percent of recycled HDPE was exported—both down from previous years.

“The big news is that export buyers are down and that’s expected to continue in the near-term — for at least the next few years,” Cornell said. “The Chinese economy has gone into a slowdown like other economies and they are no longer [importing] unwashed material.”

Because of the increasing North American demand, domestic companies now have more ability to pay higher prices and “were more effective” competing for baled plastics, Cornell said.

But while that has helped recyclers get more material, some of those gains have been countered by lower bale yields. Yields averaged just under 80 percent for HDPE recyclers and anywhere from 65-75 percent PET recyclers, reducing the amount of good quality material available.

“Contamination is a continuing issue,” Cornell said. “The more material people seek, the more they end up collecting things they don’t want.” And that’s compounded further for PET recyclers by a growth in full-wrap bottle labels and pressure-sensitive labels on thermoform packages that reduce yields.

“Packagers need to understand how their decisions aren’t friendly to recyclers and the industry needs to have a clear voice and message they can send to packaging companies,” said Cornell, who has helped developed the Design for Recycling Guidelines on the APR website.

But possibly the biggest challenge facing the industry is the shortage of supply which has led to low capacity utilization, with PET reclaimers at a capacity utilization rate of 67 percent and HDPE reclaimers at a capacity utilization of 80 percent.

A number in the mid-to-upper 80s—if not 90 percent—is typically the target, said Cornell. “That’s on the low side of where they need to be.”

The biggest trouble spot is in PET where capacity is currently 1.755 billion pounds — which is 10 percent more than 1.6 billion pounds of PET collected in 2011 — 43 percent of which went to export markets, leaving only 916 million pounds for the U.S. market.

“Folks who invest the dollars need to understand that their raw material source is not unlimited,” said Cornell. “Some will have a rude awakening. The capacity utilization issue is a huge one.”

Cornell does not expect a massive change in the amount of bottle material recycled or the recycling rate for bottles. “We’d have to have a substantial change in the collection mindset,” he said. “And I don’t see any drumbeat for that.”

But he is encouraged by the bulky rigid plastic pilot programs at grocery stores that could lead to increased collection of those materials, and the initiatives to recycle thermoformed PET packaging.

“There about 1 billion pounds of PET that go into thermoform packaging,” Cornell said. “That is a growth area for collection” that only just reached the radar screen in 2011, with 24.9 million pounds collected in PET thermoform bales. “My guess is that we’ll see major PET recyclers go after thermoforms.”

And he sees bulky rigids in the backrooms of supermarkets doing for PP what soda did for PET recycling years ago.

“It is high-grade, clean material and an assured supply — and there is a lot of it,” Cornell said. APR has estimated that 354 million pounds of bulky rigids — divided nearly equally between PP and HDPE — are used annually by medium to large grocers.

“There will be a continued growth in the supply of this material at grocers and they would like to make it a revenue stream instead of a cost,” Cornell said. “The world of PP recycling is looking better.”

The all-bottle report estimated that 43.8 million pounds of post-consumer PP was collected and recycled in 2011 compared to 35.4 million in 2010.

“The interest in recycling bulky rigids and tubs in grocery stores continues to grow,” he said. “It’s a win-win for grocery stores and for recyclers.”


Comments

Recycling challenges include container lightweighting, bale contamination

Mike Verespej

Published: October 10, 2012 6:00 am ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Sealed Air moving headquarters, 1,200 jobs to Charlotte, N.C.

July 23, 2014 2:06 pm ET

Sealed Air Corp. — which is known for its Bubble Wrap brand — is moving its headquarters from Elmwood Park, N.J., to Charlotte, N.C., and ...    More

Image

Study: 100 times less plastic than expected polluting ocean surface

July 23, 2014 3:46 pm ET

There's as much as 100 times less plastic floating on surface of the world's oceans than would be expected given the mushrooming use of the material...    More

Image

Successful packaging is about more than the materials you use

July 23, 2014 1:49 pm ET

“People do not forget how packaging makes them feel," says Marla Donahue. "Remember how frustrated you felt when you couldn't get that...    More

Image

Asia to remain chemical giant but US shale will bring competition

July 23, 2014 1:00 pm ET

A new IHS Chemical report on global spending for chemical production predicts capacity additions will peak in 2014 at $120 billion and then will...    More

Image

DuPont quarterly sales drop, income rises

July 23, 2014 12:46 pm ET

DuPont Co.'s sales and net income experienced slight changes for the second quarter 2014, as operating earnings dropped to $1.17 per share in the seco...    More

Market Reports

Injection Molders Market Report & Ranking 2014

This special package contains our 132-page 2014 Market Report on the Injection Molding segment and our exclusive 2014 RANKINGS database of 500+ Injection Molders for a discounted package price.

Learn more

Plastics Recycling Market Review & Outlook 2014

This special report from Plastics News examines the North American plastics recycling industry and provides insight into indicators that impact market viability, including Resin pricing trends for virgin and recycled market material and historical Resin production trends for post- consumer and industrial waste.

Learn more

Shale Gas Market - Analysis of North American Region

This report highlights the impact of shale-based natural gas on the North American plastics market and features an in-depth analysis of production trends in the United States during 2013 and a forecast for 2014 and beyond.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

September 10, 2014 - September 12, 2014Plastics Caps & Closures 2014

February 4, 2015 - February 6, 2015Plastics News Executive Forum 2015

More Events