With burgeoning demand, technical advances and more applications every day, plastics recycling as an industry has moved from being an illegitimate child to a strong member of the plastics processing family. During the past several years, recyclers experienced growing pains and rode the financial roller coaster common to established commodity businesses. Last year saw strong growth, maturation and economic trench warfare.
In the United States, a study done by the Municipal Waste Management Association, a Washington-based group representing cities' solid waste operations, estimated that 81 percent of 255 cities surveyed include some plastics in their curbside collections. About three-fourths of the cities expect to increase their solid waste budgets and collection. Overall, recycling goals of 25 percent of the entire waste stream have been met, but some goals for higher percentages of certain materials, including the traditionally accepted product-to-product plastics, may be unrealistic, the study concludes.
In 1995 and the first two months of this year, sources say, plastics recycling has begun to come of age globally. One indication of this trend is the importance importing and exporting of raw and processed scrap from the United States has had on domestic and foreign markets. Where once U.S. recyclers bought and sold their feedstocks nearby, they now have found offshore buyers ready and willing to compete significantly.
Examples of this can be seen on all continents, and recyclers, for the first time, have seen conditions, supply and
demand in other countries influence their own production, and profit.
U.S. recyclers became aware of problems and markets in the Far East, for example. During 1995, the demands of Chinese and sub-continental textile and carpet makers for polyester to replace cotton drove baled waste bottle prices to new highs on the U.S. West Coast, and removed massive amounts of recycled resin feedstock from the domestic market. The Far Eastern demand stopped abruptly, however, increasing feedstock supplies in the United States, but not causing a huge effect on recycled PET prices.
At the same time, many firms saw the need for better waste-plastics collection in the face of recycling growth.
In a study projecting PET supply and demand until the year 2000, Wellman Inc. of Shrewsbury, N.J., the world's largest recycler of PET, speculates that use of the resin will continue to grow at or near double-digit rates through the end of the millennium, but only if massive efforts are made to improve collection and distribution.
High density polyethylene demand in the Far East also dropped dramatically, as did prices for recycled HDPE resin.
In Europe, the German government found itself inundated with waste plastic from packaging due to its tough packaging recycling laws. Neighboring countries strove to develop policies that would restrict imports of German waste into their stream while struggling to fit their own recycling policies into the overall plans for European continentwide unification.
As Mexico struggles with its financial crisis, many companies have found that virtually no organized recycling program existed in the country. But some U.S. companies in Mexico began sorting, cleaning and processing their scrap and shipping the recyclate north, while others attempted to gain what could be lucrative municipal contracts for collection and processing within Mexico.
In the remainder of Latin America, and the Caribbean nations, plastics processing continued a pattern of expansion, and in doing so created a largely untapped recycling market.
``Plastics recycling has definitely matured,'' said Terry Bedell, manager of environmental programs for the Pleasanton, Calif.-based Clorox Co., a large end-user of recycled HDPE in its containers. ``It has become a full-fledged global business.''
While supply and demand have become largely balanced in North America for most of the recycled resins, they will continue to be influenced from outside, he said.
"Feedstock suppliers have learned that this will be cyclical, and it will not have the profiteering you used to see,'' Bedell said.
In the United States and Canada, plastics recycling has become big business, with such major players as Waste Manage-ment Inc. and Browning Ferris Industries Inc. entering on the critical collection side, and Well-man and KW Plastics Inc. satisfying an ex-panding base of clients for a widening range of applications.
J. Winston Porter, presi-dent of Waste Policy Center in Leesburg, Va., and a former assistant administrator for the Environmental Pro-tection Agency, said a now-global plastics recycling market faces new problems. Among them are increasing the collection of feedstock to keep pace with expanding demand, and developing technology to streamline production.
``It seems to us that some of the heroic recycling goals will not be met, but that U.S. recyclers will also have to come to grips with the idea that perhaps only about 30 percent of all plastic wastes will be able to be recycled by classic mechanical means, and that there is need to confront other methods, like waste-to-energy and fuel recycling,'' he said.