Trying to recover usable plastics from the alphabet soup of polymers used in computers and other electronic gadgets is a major challenge. That's why it was gratifying to see the announcement from recycler MBA Polymers Inc. that it's attracted investors and is putting up its first commercial-scale plant.
What makes me pause, though, is where the plant is going: China.
I'm not writing this to bash China, or to bemoan MBA for its decision. The company, which was profiled in Inc. magazine in 2002 in a series on corporate innovation, is making a business decision.
What's telling is MBA's reasoning: It can't get a steady supply of plastics in the United States from computers, electronics and other durable goods to make a go of it. It also sees more markets for its recycled material in fast-growing China.
So it's putting up the $10 million-plus plant in China, in part because Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are starting to build the collection take-back systems to recycle a lot of those products. MBA of Richmond, Calif., said it also wants to put up a similar plant in Europe, because governments there are requiring the large-scale collection of electronics for recycling by mid-2005. But MBA won't be putting up any commercial-scale operation in the United States any time soon. It can't find investors willing to sink money into a U.S. operation because, as the company puts it, ``We simply can't get enough material in North America.''
U.S. industry and government spent money helping to develop MBA's technology, though. Most of the firm's funding came from private sources, but MBA did get money from the federal government's Advanced Technology Program. The American Plastics Council kicked in financial support over the years.
All told, MBA spent $28 million on commercialization during the past decade. Yet the first major investments won't happen in the United States, because we're lagging on how to deal with the mess of waste from all the computers, cell phones and electronic gadgets that have become central to our lives.
We still seem to rely largely on voluntary, one-time efforts like electronics recycling days, while other governments are taking it more seriously. There are environmental costs to doing nothing: MBA said it can take 10 times as much energy to make virgin plastic as it takes to recycle it. And the recycled material is cheaper.
MBA compares itself to Nucor Corp., the steel company that pioneered the mini-mill concept and the use of recycled steel in the 1960s. Nucor is an example of what Harvard professor Clayton Christensen calls a ``disruptive technology'' that initially is resisted. Now it's an industry standard.
I don't know if MBA's technology has that future. Time will tell. But the analogy is interesting. If plastic follows the pattern of older commodities like steel and paper, over time it will use more and more recycled material, in a more sustainable, economic model.
Money follows financial opportunities, not ideals. Let's just hope MBA's announcement doesn't mean that other parts of the world are going to embrace that sustainable model more quickly.
Steve Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based reporter.