Large-scale, all-bottle recycling is about to take a big step forward. Whether the project works will be critical to the future of many plastics recyclers and may have a significant impact on processors, too.
Houston-based Waste Management Inc. is building a super-sortation facility in the Raleigh, N.C., area. The plant is designed to handle an unprecedented variety of plastic bottles: all resin types and all colors.
That's a change for WMI, the nation's largest waste hauler, which until now has collected only PET and high density polyethylene. Other bottle types are recyclable, but most recyclers consider them contaminants. There simply isn't much of a market for post-consumer polypropylene, PVC, polystyrene or low density PE bottles.
With WMI's new capability, you can be sure the company will encourage some of its municipal clients to start collecting all plastic bottles. In fact, if the technology works as hoped, some observers expect WMI to build more of the sortation plants across the country (although WMI has not confirmed that plan).
To be clear, WMI isn't doing this because it wants to collect a lot of PP, PVC, PS and LDPE bottles. The company is testing the theory, touted by the American Plastics Council, that collecting all bottles reduces the confusion that consumers have about what plastics they're allowed to recycle. The result should be more PET and HDPE collected from households, since those resins account for 95 percent of all plastic bottles.
But WMI, no doubt, also will end up with a lot of bottles that currently aren't recycled very often. Just how much remains to be seen — even WMI doesn't really know. That's one reason the company has hesitated to give its full endorsement to APC's all-bottle strategy.
Right now, most of those "other" category bottles have little or no value, meaning WMI may be forced to give them away to plastic lumber makers. That's one area in which processors and recyclers can help make this system work. The best-case scenario will be for some innovative recyclers to reprocess the seldom-handled materials and find processors willing to help create a market for the clean, post-consumer material.
The worst-case will be for consumers to start collecting more kinds of plastic bottles, only to discover later that no markets exist, and WMI is landfilling the containers.
Processors — and their customers — have another important role in helping this system succeed. They must avoid making bottles that gum up the works, either with labels, caps, materials or designs that make sorting more difficult. "Design for recycling" should be an essential part of every new product. The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, based in Arlington, Va., has guidelines to help. Once WMI establishes what its new system can, and cannot, handle, industry should do its very best to accommodate the technology.
If waste haulers and recyclers can make money recycling all plastic bottles, the result will be an end to the plastic industry's embarrassingly poor recycling record. That's a worthwhile goal, and processors would serve themselves well by getting on board.