Much of the onus for expanding plastics recycling rests with people outside the reclaiming community. But how well the industry steps up to the plate and clarifies issues, sets standards, and helps municipalities, material recovery facilities and consumers understand the value of recycling could determine how well recyclers capitalize on growing demand for recycled resin.
Labeling, collection and sorting issues loom, as more municipalities expand the type and volume of plastics they collect.
We are really at a moment in time because demand is greater than it ever has been for finished product with recycled content, and the interest in plastics recycling is at its highest point ever, said Steve Alexander, executive director of the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers. But we are facing labeling issues, issues with bioresins, issues with supply of materials, and issues with contamination.
Two of the biggest contamination concerns are degradable additives and bioresins both of which have the potential to contaminate existing recycling streams. Alexander said APR which represents more than 90 percent of all post-consumer processing capacity in North America is addressing some of those issues through Web seminars and online resources. It also has developed technical programs, critical documents and guidelines to help firms design products for recyclability, assess whether their products will mesh with current recycling streams, and tackle the issue of degradable additives head-on.
Our testing protocols on degradable additives was the first step, Alexander said. Our job is to make sure people understand what's compatible with recycling. That means talking to [material recovery facilities], talking to municipalities, educating consumers, and helping to expand the amount and types of material they are recycling.
For example, APR's rigid plastics recycling program is working to boost recycling beyond PET and high density polyethylene bottles by working with grocers in identifying obstacles to capturing the huge volume of material roughly 350 million pounds per year which today is largely untapped.
But with expanded collection, contamination challenges also will grow.
With the growth of curbside and single-stream recycling, we are seeing an increased amount of contamination in bales, which impacts the bale's ability to be reclaimed, said Alexander. That is the real challenge: How do you separate it and sort it? How do you segregate that material?
The industry has worked with communities to recycle beyond bottles, he said. They want to do the right thing, but many communities are financially restricted, he said. We need to educate them on how they can make money by increasing the material they recycle.
Consumers also must be able to perceive the value in recycled materials. We need to do a better job of explaining to people what's recyclable and how to do it, and what is possible and not possible, and what has value, he said. People need to understand that any HDPE bottle put into a landfill is money going down the drain.
Consumers do not recognize that plastics recycling can be a domestic industry, Alexander said. One of the messages we are trying to get across is that recycling means jobs and that it is an economic development tool, so we need to keep it here in North America.
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