The autumn 2008 market crash that left a lot of recycled plastics sitting in warehouses, waiting for better prices, has eased in the past month with a slight uptick in value.
But the anxiety about recycled-resin prices among reclaimers at the Plastics Recycling Conference, held Feb. 24-25 in Orlando, was matched if not surpassed by the anxiety of plastic product manufacturers, industry associations and coalitions trying to get their hands around the interconnected issues of sustainability and recycling.
Seventy percent of the 100 billion plastic products produced annually end up in landfills in less than six months, said Bill Carteaux, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. We have to figure out how we fix that Achilles heel. We need to design for the next life, not end-of-life.
If we can't solve this issue the low recycling rate of plastics we can talk all we want about all the other benefits of plastics in areas such as medical [devices], but the industry, as a whole, isn't going to grow and the United States isn't going to continue to be the largest plastic market anymore, Carteaux said.
Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in Charlottesville, Va., said industry issues of recycling and sustainability require the collaboration of the entire supply chain, including retailers.
Sustainability has moved from being an environmental issue to an issue of fundamental business strategy. We need investments in things that change the equation and recycling is one of those things, she said.
We have to look at how we can improve recovery of packaging overall in the U.S., not just the recovery of individual products or resins, and how we can help support further implementation of a better recycling infrastructure and technology, Johnson added.
The considerable attention on sustainability is triggering a number of initiatives that were discussed at the conference:
c The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington has formed a rigid plastics group to work on developing ways to recycle resins other than PET and high-density polyethylene.
c The Sustainable Packaging Coalition in late March will study challenges and opportunities for improving packaging recovery in the United States.
c Waste Management Recycle America (WMRA), a unit of Waste Management Inc. of Houston, wants to find partners in improving recovery rates of recycled material.
c SPI has given ASTM in West Conshohocken, Pa., the job of making SPI's resin identification code, often mistaken for a recycling code, more understandable.
Steve Sikra, global package development leader at Procter & Gamble Co. and chairman of APR's rigids working group, agreed. We need to create business awareness and a new metric to look at your package across a variety of important measures, he said.
The U.S. plastics industry needs to expand its recycling infrastructure beyond PET and HDPE bottles, Sikra said. We need to change societal behavior and make recycling part of our everyday life. The responsibility starts with [manufacturers]. We need to do it and live it, he said.
Sikra said 17 packaging firms, manufacturers, associations, recyclers, collectors and other invested parties have joined the working rigids group and intend to define its projects for 2009 and 2010 by May, with polypropylene recycling as a possible priority.
We want to collect and sell resins now being landfilled. We want to increase the collection stream and reduce the contamination in the existing PET/ HDPE stream, Sikra said.
Johnson said her packaging coalition hopes to develop design guidelines, technical briefs on materials, metrics, and an assessment tool for evaluating different materials for life-cycle impact. The coalition also plans to propose a labeling system to the end confusion among companies at different levels of the supply chain that use different terms.
We need a labeling system nationally that is applicable to all types of packaging, from plastics to metals to paper, she said. The resin identification code has become an educational code for consumers and is confusing to them. Recycling has to be something we do simply and easily. A simpler recycling label is probably needed.
Johnson also talked about the need for financial resources to achieve goals. There is an opportunity to look at public-private partnerships to get grant money to support infrastructure developments such as optical sorting for recyclers, she said.
Dennis Sabourin, executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif., agreed: We need to reach out across the aisle to other stakeholders to develop the things we have to do to make this more sustainable.
But that isn't easy, said WMRA Vice President Karl Mockros: It is a challenge and there are not always solutions to doing things.
But, Mockros added, success will come only by figuring out ways to work with everyone in the supply chain. The more we work together, the more sustainable we will become, he said.
Johnson suggested the recycling industry could benefit from clear priorities or policies from the U.S. government. Recycling in this country suffers from a lack of leadership at the federal level, she said. When you look at the more efficient system in other countries or in states like California, there is some type of government guideline or policies.
Carteaux disagreed with the need for government-issued mandates, but said that government funding should be used to develop a recycling infrastructure. He said SPI hopes to show how to conduct effective recycling at NPE2009, which runs June 22-26 in Chicago.
At the last four [NPE] shows, we've recycled all the plastic scrap generated by the equipment at the show, he said. This time, we want to also recycle all the incoming packaging material, the carpets on the floor and recycle all the post-consumer waste as well.