The plastics recycling sector is doing pretty well these days, thanks to the corporate sustainability trend.
But it still faces a major problem — supply.
Recyclers need access to more material so they can supply processors' growing appetite to use recycled content in packaging and consumer products.
Experts quoted in this week's recycling special report say the current collection system has reached a plateau. Recycling rates have stagnated, and communities are not scrambling to collect more materials.
“It is stagnant at best,” Mike Schedler, technical director for the National Association for PET Container Resources, told Plastics News' Mike Verespej. “I don't think we've made any gains in collection.”
The problem is twofold, according to Scott Mouw, the top recycling official for the state of North Carolina. Cities are constrained in their spending, and they aren't being rewarded financially by their plastics recycling efforts.
The result is that plastic that has real value is ending up in landfills. Consider PET bottles — the cream of the plastics recycling stream. But about 70 percent of them end up in landfills, not just because consumers are too lazy to recycle them, but because many communities aren't doing enough to collect them.
“We have enough material to feed the recycling plants. We are just not getting it captured. We need more enterprise funding for municipal collection,” Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council Inc., told Plastics News. His organization represents 11 Southeast states and has a mission to unite industry, government and non-government organizations to develop and promote sustainable recycling and to make it cost-effective and efficient.
There's a mountain of material out there that could be collected and recycled right now. But the prospects for getting it don't look good.
This is where the rules of supply and demand are supposed to kick in and reward communities that collect — and companies that recycle — plastics, right?
But it's not that simple. Recycled plastics still need to be cost-competitive with virgin resins. If the near-term outlook for polyethylene, for example, is that shale gas will result in cost advantages for virgin resin producers, what will that mean to recyclers?
Not a pretty picture.
Still, forward-thinking companies realize that plastics recycling needs to make progress, and it needs to do it pretty quickly. Some will support extended producer responsibility efforts, like those featured on Page 8 in this week's special report. Others will step up efforts to make sure their products are being collected and recycled — if for no other reason than to help blunt attacks from critics who would like to see them banned or taxed.
Plastics have a great sustainability story. But throwing them away in landfills — or seeing them contribute to litter and marine debris problems — is a wasted opportunity.