The number of pounds of non-bottle rigid plastics recycled in the U.S. in 2008 increased by slightly more than 35 million pounds over the previous year, but remained below the 400 million-pound minimum that recyclers say is needed to develop a consistent mainstream market with economic viability.
The amount of material collected in 2008 360.8 million pounds represents a 10.8 percent increase over 2007, according to the report released March 3 by the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va.
We are pleased to see a significant increase as we track [the] recycling progress of non-bottle rigid plastics, said Steve Russell, ACC's vice president of plastics. About 38 percent of the material collected was high density polyethylene and 25 percent was polypropylene, ACC estimated.
However, the most significant change from 2007 the first year ACC compiled a non-bottle rigid plastics report was that about 62 percent of the material collected in 2008 was manufactured into new products in the U.S. and Canada, with the remainder exported, mostly to China.
That's almost a complete flip-flop from 2007 when 204 million pounds or 63.5 percent of the material collected was exported, mostly to China. It also means that the amount of material available to reclaimers in the U.S. nearly doubled from 121.4 million pounds in 2007 to 223.6 pounds in 2008. In part that domestic boost was because China stopped buying plastic bales from the U.S in the fourth quarter of 2008. Also, researchers made more aggressive efforts in 2008 to identify additional domestic sources, which were underreported in 2007, according to the report.
The recycling of non-bottle rigid plastics remains confined largely to the West Coast. Only 28 of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. collected non-bottle rigid plastics, most of those being along the West Coast.
What's more, only 16 of those 28 cities collect rigid plastics beyond containers.
Slightly more than half of the non-bottle rigid plastics collected, or 194 million pounds, could be classified as durable goods such as pallets, crates, carts, 5-gallon buckets and electronic housings. About 6 percent of the material collected was electronic and computer scrap, gathered largely through community drop-off programs.
The totals include both post-consumer material and post-industrial scrap, said ACC.
The amount of material recycled might have been higher, the report speculated, except for the economic downturn that sent plastic prices plummeting in late October 2008 and brought the export market to an abrupt halt.
The report said pricing and demand for recycled plastics, including non-bottle rigid plastics, began to rebound near the end of the first quarter of 2009, but is not yet back to the all-time highs reached in July 2008 just prior to the downturn.
The main challenges to increased collection include a lack of enforceable bale specifications for non-bottle rigid plastics, and the ability of materials recovery facilities to ship low-quality, mixed resin bales to China, according to the report.
The report estimated the total North American capacity for processing non-bottle rigid plastics at 530 million pounds, and that over half of the recycled non-bottle rigid plastics go into lumber and railroad ties, and thick-walled injection molding products such as garden pots or crates and pallets used for transport packaging.
ACC did not attempt to calculate a recycling rate because rigid non-bottles include a broad mix of plastic containers and products such as HDPE tubs, polypropylene cups, hangers, electronic housings, car bumpers, crates, pallets, carts and bottle caps.
The report was based on data supplied by 21 post-consumer plastics processors and end users and 26 exporters. It was conducted by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif.
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