There are a number of promising projects aimed at increasing supplies of post-consumer materials on the drawing boards — including the development of bale specifications for seven non-bottle rigid plastics that right now are either not easily recycled or seldom separated into their own material stream.
In addition, a pilot project involving grocers to recycle thermoformed PET containers may start sometime this summer.
But, at the same time, there is also a growing sense that there won't be any dramatic change in the amount of plastics recycled unless the industry tries something different.
“I don't see anything on the horizon that will give us a big jump,” said Byron Geiger, president of Custom Polymers PET LLC in Athens, Ala. “I don't think there's any silver bullet.”
“The industry has to take a look at what's working to increase supply and concentrate on that, whether it's single-stream recycling, deposit bills or pay-as-you-throw programs,” said Scott Saunders, general manager of KW Plastics Recycling in Troy, Ala., and chairman of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, based in Washington. “We have to look at what programs actually bring more material into the market. We need to be more open to what type of infrastructure and programs we need.”
The two major plastics industry recycling associations both agree that a third stream is necessary, whether it is thermoformed PET containers, polypropylene lids and tubs — or both.
“For a number of reasons, grocers and retailers need to have more packaging on their shelves that is being recycled and less non-recyclable packaging,” said Dennis Sabourin, executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources, based in Sonoma, Calif. “And the single largest packaging on shelves today is thermoformed containers and clamshells.”
“What we have to do is identify a third material stream,” agreed Steve Alexander, executive director of APR. “There is a huge demand for recycled PP. You just have to figure out how to get it collected, how to separate it, and work on that because the demand is there. There is a lot of enthusiasm for recycling another resin going forward.”
APR has also developed bale specifications for two types of non-bottle rigid plastic—bulky rigids and tubs and lids—and is developing five more.
That's a welcome — and much needed — initiative, said Chandler Slavin, director of sustainability at thermoformer Dordan Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Woodstock Ill., which makes clamshells, trays and blister packs for consumer product goods packaging.
“The new bales specifications are definitely needed because if there aren't specifications, [materials recovery facilities] won't collect it,” she said.
Bale specifications are also important so that people are on the same page when they talk about bales of recycled plastic.
“The bale specifications are important because we need to talk the same language,” said Alexander. “We want to spend a lot of time talking to MRFs and municipal systems to define the parameters of what we mean by a rigid thermoformed bale.”
Another effort to expand supply — the voluntary labeling initiative of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition which will launch this fall with a pilot program —also gets plaudits from reclaimers.
“Any education you get out there to the consumer will help in collection,” said Custom Polymers' Geiger, referring to the labeling initiative. “The more information the consumer has, I think the better it is.”
In addition to industrywide initiatives, there is also a growing sense that individual companies need to be more involved and that all the parties involved in recycling, including brand owners and governments, need to collaborate and develop solutions that work for all.
“It is becoming paramount that we dedicate part of our resources as a company to push this forward,” said Dan Slavin, president and CEO of Dordan.
“What we need is the collaboration of major players, including NAPCOR and APR, so there is a single direction we can all get behind,” he said. “We need to work together to move the collection of plastics forward. It is important for our industry and for the overall environment.”
Mike Schedler, technical director at NAPCOR, agreed. “It is absolutely necessary that we have a forum to discuss public policies on recycling, but we are so far away from that right now. Without that, efforts to improve recycling will continue to stumble and be disjointed,” he said.
One concept get increased attention in the U.S. is extended producer responsibility, which is well-established in Europe and spreading throughout Canada.
Although Saunders isn't ready to endorse EPR like Kim Jeffery, president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North American Inc. has done, the APR chairman and KW executive likes the fact that “the threat of EPR brings all participants to the table at a high level.”
“With EPR, they can't say it's not my issue,” Saunders said. “The people who make that product and container now listen and want to make something environmentally friendly because they don't want to get a bad image as a brand owner. Brand owners today are much more involved. Five years ago, you didn't even know who to talk to.”