Obtaining more recycled resins and finding ways to increase the amount of plastic containers recycled continue to be vexing issues for manufacturers looking to incorporate recycled content into their packaging or products.
There's not enough supply. The supply is increasingly contaminated. Most everyone balks at making the needed investments in infrastructure. And right now, high recycled resin prices have made some end users hesitant to incorporate recycled content.
Today, we are in a very unusual situation, said David Clark, sustainability director for Amcor Rigid Plastics in Ann Arbor, Mich., which expects to use between 50 million and 80 million pounds of post-consumer resin in its packaging in 2011. We are finding that good post-consumer resin is significantly more expensive. And some customers are willing to pay for it, and some are not.
The current high pricing structure stems from increasingly contaminated material, a lack of adequate supply, and too much material headed overseas, mostly to China. More than half of the PET bottles and more than 24 percent of the high density polyethylene bottles and containers collected in the U.S. in 2009 were exported overseas.
A lot of communities have gone to single-stream recycling, so we are dealing with a lot more contaminated material. And recycling rates are way too low in the United States and in the rest of the world, Clark said at Sustainable Plastics Packaging 2010 in Atlanta. The December conference was organized by Plastics News Global Group.
The supply and use of recycled resin is just as vexing for consumer product goods companies. It is hard to make strategic decisions because of the cost volatility and the amount of material going to export, said a plastics buyer for a consumer products firm.
Today, only a handful of product categories blister packs for electronics packaging, clear and colored PET bottles for household cleaners, and HDPE containers for laundry products, shampoos, soaps and conditioners typically may include 25 percent or more recycled content, said Katherine O'Dea, senior fellow at GreenBlue in Charlottesville, Va. The non-profit institute has several working groups, including the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Far more categories, including 15 that she listed, currently have no recycled content, O'Dea said.
Of even greater concern, she said, is that a feeling among companies that there is a fairly minimal opportunity to get recycled content into these applications.
The ability to use recycled content depends on the ability to access that material and there is a lot of competition out there today for recycled material, she said.
What's more, the amount of resins collected for some plastics such as the 21 million pounds collected for polypropylene is not enough to support a recycling structure, Clark said. The plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Washington estimates that 400 million pounds are needed to develop a market.
In other cases, finding ways to recycle some plastic products made in large quantities such as thermoformed PET containers remains challenging, although it is currently being tackled by the thermoforming division of the National Association of PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif.
Among the issues: whether it makes more sense to separate thermoformed PET containers like clamshells, blisters and trays into their own recycling stream, or collect them with PET bottles. There are other technical issues as well at both the processing end and in manufacturing.
In addition, thermoformed containers and packages come in all shapes and sizes, which makes sorting difficult, thereby driving up the cost of reprocessing them, said Chandler Slavin, sustainability coordinator for Dordan Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Woodstock, Ill. The family-owned business makes thermoformed containers for food products, mostly from PET.
'The industry, the waste-management industry and the producers need to collaborate to decide how to design thermoform containers for recycling, Slavin said. We need to set up the infrastructure to recover them before consumers can begin to recycle them. The potential value of this growing PET packaging segment is not being successfully realized.
Despite the challenges, she is optimistic that the industry will be able to resolve the issues and technical challenges and create a PET thermoform recycling stream.
I think it is only a matter of time because the demand for post-consumer PET recyclate far exceeds the supply, said Slavin, who is co-lead of the PET subcommittee of the Material Optimization Committee for Walmart Canada Corp.
Yet, regardless of the type of plastic, a number of obstacles must be overcome in the United States to increase recycling of all post-consumer plastics packaging and to use more recycled content in packaging.
There is a lack of material collection and sorting infrastructure, said O'Dea. There are limited end markets for materials, and there is significant international market competition for existing recovered material.
Ironically, the long-standing resin identification code, currently being revised by ASTM, also causes some confusion. There's no separate number for bioplastics. Also, the revision process to the code which has been going on for two years continues to move at a slow pace, and consumers automatically assume that if a plastic has a number on it, it's recyclable, Clark said.
Even if it is recycled, it doesn't mean it will get recycled when it gets to a MRF, added O'Dea.
But the biggest obstacle to increased plastics recycling continues to be the economic viability of the investments needed to build the collection infrastructure and sort the materials.
The majority of MRFs do not have the equipment or the space to effectively separate plastics other than PET and HDPE, said O'Dea, so most of the rest is baled and sold at a lower price and shipped offshore.
It comes down to who's going to pay for the investments, O'Dea said.
At this point, I have no idea where funding comes from for investment in sorting technologies, said Slavin.
She pointed out that it is often difficult for municipalities, material recovery facilities or manufacturers to justify that capital expenditure economically.
An MRF will not make an investment until it can guarantee the supply of and demand for the material, she said.
Slavin added that if the industry wants to get thermoformed material collected, it will have to develop specifications for thermoform bales.
Without such specifications, there won't be an end market and buyers, and these material/packaging types will not be collected post-consumer and sold for remanufacturing, she said.
Collection costs also can be a deterrent, Slavin said.
If the cost to recycle a material/packaging type is too high which often is the result of ineffective collecting/sorting processes, then the cost of the product/package for which said recyclate was intended would put the selling unit at a competitive disadvantage in the market, she said.
It might make sense for a company making a sizable amount of packaging of a specific type to put together a closed-loop system in which it takes back its packaging, regrinds it and turns it back into resin it can sell to extruders, suggested Slavin.
But economically, I don't know if that's a viable option for a lot of thermoformers, she said.
Regardless of whether those economics exist, there will continue to be pressure to have an end-of-life recycling option for packaging materials, and the industry needs to address that, Slavin said.
Recycling is a business, she said. The infrastructure is weak. We must collaborate if we intend to make it strong. It is our responsibility to nourish it through supply-chain collaboration and industry-led initiatives.
That is why extended producer responsibility, already used to a some degree in Europe and Canada, is likely to eventually emerge in the U.S. to increase the amount of material both plastics and other that is recycled.
EPR is a huge issue and there is a lot of movement around it, O'Dea said.