The recycling of non-bottle rigid plastics nearly doubled in 2010, rising a dramatic 72 percent on top of a nearly 33 percent gain in 2009.
The impressive two-year jump in the recycling of items such as householde containers, carts, crates, buckets, toys, lawn furniture, tubs and lids, and electronics and computer scrap boosted the volume of those materials collected in 2010 to almost 826.7 million pounds — more than twice as much as the 360.8 million pounds collected in 2008.
That growing stream of recycled materials was one of the drivers behind the decision last summer by KW Plastics Recycling to invest $5 million to $6 million to build a wash line for bulky rigid plastics at its giant plastics recycling complex in Troy, Ala. The line, which is expected to be fully operational in three to fourth months, will have annual capacity to process 150 million pounds of bulky rigid plastics made from injection-grade high density polyethylene.
About 29 percent, or 238.8 million pounds, of non-bottle rigid plastics recycled in 2010 were made from HDPE, second only to polypropylene, which was 44 percent, or 363.4 million pounds, of the materials collected, according to data compiled by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. of Sonoma, Calif., and released Feb. 8 by the Washington-based American Chemistry Council.
“I really believe that bulky rigids and baled PP will follow the same track as mixed-color HDPE did in the 1990s and become a solid recycling stream very quickly,” said KW General Manager Scott Saunders. “Once people are convinced there is processing capacity and customer demand, you will see a domino effect with material recovery facilities separating the material, as they are already collecting it.”
KW is already buying monthly “in excess of 30 million pounds” of bulky rigid plastics for processing in Troy, Saunders said in a telephone interview.
The Moore report said the biggest volume jump in materials collected, by resin type, was PP. The amount of non-bottle rigid PP collected virtually tripled in 2010: It went from 27 percent of all rigid plastics collected in 2009 — or roughly 129 million pounds of the total — to 363.7 million, or 44 percent of the total in 2010.
“What that tells us is that there has been a large amount of polypropylene hiding in plain sight,” said Dave Cornell, technical director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington. “But collecting the diverse end uses for versatile polypropylene is not simple, which explains why APR members have put in the time and effort to open a new area of post-consumer items for recycling.”
Indeed, the overall rapid growth of non-bottle rigid plastics collection reflects the efforts during the past three years by plastics recycling groups, especially APR, to develop that group of materials into a solid recycling stream that can join PET and HDPE containers.
Late last summer, for example, APR began a six-month, nationwide pilot program to recycle rigid plastic containers used in the back rooms of bakery, deli and seafood counters at grocery stores. APR estimates medium and large U.S. supermarkets generate 350 million pounds of rigid plastics behind their counters and 60 percent of that, or 212 million pounds, stacks easily.
Elizabeth Bedard, director of APR's rigid plastics recycling program, has called those particular containers “low-hanging fruit” that rigid plastics recycling needs in order to move forward.
APR also has conducted bale audit surveys, identified seven types of bulky rigid bales, and put together bale specifications for two of those seven types, with others still under development.
With regard to non-bottle rigids, the amount of material that stayed in the U.S. and Canada almost doubled after two straight years of remaining essentially stagnant. Specifically, the amount of non-bottle rigids that remained in the U.S./Canada jumped from 243.1 million pounds in 2009 to 475.8 million pounds in 2010. About 58 percent of that material collected in 2010 was processed by companies in those two countries, compared with only 51 percent in 2009. In addition, the U.S. and Canada processed 78 percent of non-bottle rigid resins segregated by MRFs into individual recycling streams.
About 65 percent of the non-bottle rigid plastics were exported offshore, mainly to China. Mixed-plastic bales made up the majority of that material.
“We are discussing with cities and making sure they are aware that there are strong markets for these materials in the United States,” said Keith Christman, ACC managing director of plastics markets.
According to the report, there are several reasons for the reported volume increase in non-bottle rigid plastics collected — especially increased non-bottle rigid collection efforts across the U.S. and “continued progress” in getting more companies — especially those in the “commercial sector” — to report data.
The report did not provide any new data on how many communities have expanded their collection programs to include non-bottle rigids. 2008 report was the last time that data was included.
However, Christman said that “around 50” of the top 100 U.S. communities now collect non-bottle rigid plastics, compared with 28 in 2008.
The report, now in its fourth year, noted that its methodology has not changed. “But in the last two years,” it said, “[we have] gathered data from additional reclaimers of segregated resins and post-consumer material coming out of the commercial sector.”
The report puts annual U.S. reclamation capacity for non-bottle rigids at a minimum of 636 million pounds, with less than a third of that going into mixed-resin products like lumber, railroad ties and horticultural products.
Primary domestic end uses for the materials are pipe, buckets, auto products and other somewhat thick-walled, injection molded items like pots and crates.
The information for the current report was based on post-consumer recovery data reported by 27 U.S. and Canadian plastics reclaimers and 25 exporters.