Recycler Ben Benvenuti thinks he has found one answer to the shortage of recycled plastic in the United States: Look south to the untapped markets of the Caribbean and Latin America.
Benvenuti, president of Commercial Plastics Recycling Inc. in Tampa, Fla., recently started an operation to grind and recycle plastic bottles on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and ship them to the United States. He's looking to expand the operation into Panama and other Central and South American nations.
With tight supplies in the United States, and with soda bottles under the control of soft drink bottlers or large waste-hauling companies, where CPR does not have any particular relationships, Benvenuti decided to try an untraditional route.
Working with a customer that made bottles on Trinidad, he started meeting with officials from the island's government, who were debating container deposits and other ways of boosting recycling.
``It's hard to get material in the United States, so people are getting creative,'' he said. ``You're not going to buy a bottle in the U.S. unless you're tied to Coke or Pepsi or somebody. We have to look elsewhere for our material; that's our rationale in going to those locations.''
CPR opened its 6,000-square-foot grinding operation a few months ago on the small Caribbean island nation (made up of the two islands of Trinidad and Tobago), where it collects PET and high density polyethylene bottles. It's part of a larger expansion under way at the company.
The firm is spending about $1 million to add solid-stating equipment at its Millwood, W.Va., factory, and it opened a grinding plant and warehouse in Newton, N.C. It recently inked a deal with Danish equipment manufacturer Runi A/S to distribute its line of compactors.
The company has put a lot of resources into exploring the Latin niche, he said.
The firm recently took part in a trade mission to Panama organized by the city government of Tampa, and is in negotiations with a recycling company there to form a joint venture to supply material from the region, including Ecuador and Colombia.
CPR is not alone in reaching south for material. According to statistics from the National Association for PET Container Resources, Mexico replaced Canada as the United States' largest source of imported recycled PET in 2004, as the amount of recycled PET imported from all countries increased 70 percent, to 106 million pounds.
Benvenuti said he wants to push beyond Mexico because other U.S. recyclers already are entrenched there.
While the Caribbean markets may be relatively untapped, they're also undeveloped.
CPR has had to build the Trinidad operation from the ground up, including strengthening the collection infrastructure. The firm has put 400 collection bins in schools and offices, and, more importantly, tapped into a recycling method common in the region: hiring people who pick through garbage dumps looking for valuables.
Benvenuti said he's paying pickers, who typically collect things with more value like aluminum or glass bottles, to collect plastic bottles.
But it's a challenge because the plastic doesn't have as much value, he said, noting that aluminum prices are high enough to generate interest among pickers, and glass bottles are reused.
``If you have pickers out there in the landfill, and they have a choice of picking aluminum, glass and plastic, plastic will be the last thing they want to pick,'' he said.
The twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago together are one of the Caribbean's most prosperous countries, largely due to petroleum and natural gas production, according to the online version of the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook.
But the country still has low wages and people who look through garbage for valuables, Benvenuti said.
Trinidad and Tobago has been talking about a bottle bill, which would make the plastic more valuable to pickers and result in more being collected, he said: ``We're trying to do it without the bottle bill but the economics of that are very difficult.''
Right now, the company gets about 80,000 pounds of material a month from Trinidad, where the plant grinds and bales it, said sales manager Kevin Barnhart. The material collected is of good quality, and is ``phenomenally clean of PVC,'' which can contaminate PET loads, Benvenuti said.
Trinidad and Tobago is not the only part of the company's expansion.
The 67,000-square-foot Newton, N.C., plant is near a lot of different manufacturing operations, from medical to furniture and appliance companies, and it's centrally located on the eastern seaboard, Barnhart said. The company is considering whether it wants to make plastic lumber there in the future, Benvenuti said.
The Millwood expansion into solid stating will let the company offer material with a higher intrinsic viscosity, which can be sold into more demanding markets. The firm also may expand into extruding sheet on its own, Benvenuti said. The solid-stating equipment should be running in nine months, he said.
CPR, which Benvenuti started in 1996, has grown in recent years, with the company moving into a 52,000-square-foot headquarters plant in Tampa three years ago, and opening the Millwood site a year before that.
The 50-person company expects sales to grow this year to about $11 million, from $9.2 million last year, which Benvenuti said mainly reflects the run-up in recycled resin pricing, not a large increase in volume. While sales are up, he said recycling markets mirror the rest of the manufacturing industry, with the same number of firms chasing less and less recycled material in the United States.
``With the exodus of many U.S. companies to China, you have probably the same amount of brokers or processors or recyclers, fighting over a shrinking piece of pie,'' he said. ``If you're not adding value, if you're just buying brokered material, the margins are ugly. You have to be adding value.''