A combination of plunging virgin-resin prices, the disappearing ``landfill crisis'' and no more ``green rage'' has spelled trouble for plastic recyclers, but Lee Hornberger, an engineering professor from California, said the companies that remain open are a tough breed.
``They're very independent and very stubborn people. Their business survived because they wanted it to survive. And they did what it takes to ride out the bad times,'' Hornberger said at Antec 2002 in San Francisco.
Hornberger, associate dean of engineering at Santa Clara University in California, said that during 2000-01, she spent her sabbatical visiting 31 companies in the United States and Europe. Seventeen of them are recycling operations on the West Coast, where she has been a consultant. She also stopped at processors that turn out end products, and at resin companies. All of them use post-consumer material.
In a paper presented May 6, she found:
* Most of the 31 firms have annual sales of less than $10 million.
* A third were founded more than 16 years ago.
* A third were built during the ``recycling craze'' nine to 13 years ago.
* A third are just 5 years old. Many of the newer companies use their own waste - for example, turn wood flour into wood-plastic composite decking.
* One-fourth use recycled resin for their end products only when it's cheaper than virgin material.
* Half the companies developed technology in-house, rather than purchased turnkey systems. Those recyclers also are adept at fixing machines quickly when they break down. Newer recyclers in Europe tend to buy turnkey systems.
The mid-1980s to the early 1990s marked the golden age of plastics recycling. Resin prices skyrocketed and the U.S. economy was strong and growing. People said they wanted recycled products.
Now the reverse is true: ``You hear very little green rage going on,'' Hornberger said.
In her travels, she studied what recyclers need to survive, long-term. They said it takes committed leadership; the support of local governments, universities, trade associations and other plastics companies; a focused, defined market; and technical competence. Many recyclers support legislation to spur recycling. They need more collection of plastic bottles and better specification of materials.
Hornberger said the United States may need stricter laws to mandate recycling.
``We may be forced into it if - somewhere, sometime - our landfills are going to fill up,'' she told the Society of Plastics Engineers audience.
Niche markets such as decking are holding their own. But Hornberger said: ``I'm definitely worried about the post-consumer recycling industry.''