Plastics recyclers are showing greater creativity in finding materials they need to fill their plants' capacity and meet growing demand for recycled materials.
Industrial recyclers are expanding locations and setting up operations in customers' plants. Post-consumer recyclers are arranging deals to obtain material from retail operations. Others are looking to duplicate the success of Mason, Mich.-based Dart Container Corp. in recycling polystyrene school lunch trays, and many are looking to tap into products used by grocery chains and retailers.
In addition, plastics recycling associations are feverishly working to create new streams of material — whether from the back rooms of grocery stores or from the huge volume of thermoformed PET packaging — and assessing new sources of material.
“We are working on getting more supply,” said Steve Alexander, executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, which has identified seven bales types beyond the traditional PET and high density polyethylene bales and put specifications already in place for two of them.
APR has opened up the market to recycle bulky rigid plastics and completed a pilot program that showed that recycling the HDPE and polypropylene containers used in the back rooms of grocery stores is economically feasible. (See story, Page 9.)
“That grocery store project showed that recycling those containers can become a profit center for stores without any extra labor,” Alexander said.
APR also has started a film reclamation group to accelerate the recovery of clean material. Alexander said he believes about 500 million to 600 million pounds of film are used annually on pallets in grocery stores.
He hopes to create a template for film like the one made for bulky rigid plastics — items such as carts, crates, buckets, toys and lawn furniture, mostly made from injection-grade HDPE.
“We are also developing design-for-recyclability guidelines for both rigid thin-walled containers, and for film,” he said. In addition, an APR survey of 11 brand-name companies indicated an annual demand for 507 million pounds of recycled PP — another area where the industry needs to find more materials to recycle.
An initiative designed to advance and accelerate the recycling of PET thermoformed containers — clamshells, cups, trays, boxes and lids — is also moving forward. That market, in terms of pounds of material manufactured, is roughly one-half the size of the PET bottle market and is growing rapidly, with an estimated 6 billion pounds sent to landfills in North America each year.
After first resolving some technical issues to prevent those containers from contaminating the PET bottle recycling stream, the National Association for PET Container Resources, in partnership with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., issued three grants two months ago for pilot programs for PET thermoformed packaging recycling.
“Intermediate processors of recycled materials are not only eager to capture and market PET thermoformed material domestically, but have already begun to work through how to make it happen,” said Mike Schedler, NAPCOR technical director.
By the end of the year, he said, every PET reclaimer will be able to process PET thermoformed containers and incorporate 3-10 percent into their process. Every reclaimer is recovering previously discarded thermoformed items and selling that material to other reclaimers, he said.
The key to that was removing some of the obstacles that prevented recycling thermoformed containers in the same stream as bottles, said Schedler. “There are billions of dollars invested in PET bottle recycling and you don't want to jeopardize that.”
For example, material recovery facilities can't bale thermoformed packaging at the same platen pressure as bottles “or you will get a solid brick that can't be broken,” he said.
“For those MRFs that have auto-sort capacity, markets are available for PET thermoforms that are manually sorted from the bottles and baled separately, or included at some specified percentage in PET bottle bales,” Schedler said.
How soon a supply from MRFs will be readily available in the U.S. isn't certain.
But one source of supply available now is in Canada, thanks to the Canadian Grocers Initiative, which mandates that companies use thermoformed clamshell food containers made from PET for most food packaging.
But in the U.S, marshaling supply won't be as easy. “The lion's share of our work is done” in terms of removing technical obstacles, said Schedler. “Now we have to get consumers on board and let them know it is recyclable” and get retailers involved.
“The average PET bale in the U.S. has between 4 and 5 percent of PET thermoformed containers in them without consumer education. So … it can get to double digits fairly quickly.”
The work by APR and NAPCOR parallels the endeavors of individual companies to expand where they get material to feed their reclamation plants.
Some firms are looking to get more PET bottles from the Caribbean and South America. Others have different approaches. Recycler Envision Plastics Industries LLC of Reidsville, N.C., has a partnership that recovers large HDPE pharmaceutical bottles.
“We have been approaching store chains,” said Envision Vice President Tamsin Ettefagh. “We get in about five to six truckloads of that material a month and several thousands pounds of pill bottles,” with the latter sent to its sister company, EcoPlast Inc., in Fontana, Calif.
“We see that as a growth area of supply,” she said. “We need that because I see less HDPE packaging and more flexible pouch packaging being used in the marketplace. Our biggest challenge is to understand what the future is for the types of packages we recycle and how new packages are made.”
Another recycler is looking to put together pilot programs with grocery chains to augment its current supply of material, and another recycling said that it is working to copy the success of Dart in recycling PS food-service material from school districts.
Industrial recycler Coll Materials Exchange LLC in Zanesville, Ohio, is looking to expand regionally to be closer to supply sources. It already has a second plant in Waco, Texas, and is looking to locate a plant in the Pacific Northwest.
That's an approach one of the industry's largest industrial recyclers, Maine Plastics Inc. — which reprocessed 150.5 million pounds of plastic in 2011 — began to use four years ago, growing from three plants to nine to boost its sources of supply.
“Freight costs have skyrocketed and people want to do business with a nearby location. That has helped those plants tremendously,” said Maine Plastics CEO David Kaplan.
In addition, Kaplan said, “our suppliers are looking for more creative ways to use their byproducts and put them back into their own products.”
“So we have set up programs to take in their scrap, grind it, test it and change it into a pellet.”
In some cases, Maine Plastics has taken ownership of the in-plant recycling of its suppliers or set up its own recycling operations in a supplier's plant, said President David Spitulnik.
“More people are trying to recycle, and our other business, A Greener Solution, is helping people figure out how to more effectively capture their production scrap so they can recycle it,” said Spitulnik.
“We have a number of plants that are our processing partners,” said Robert Render, CEO of A Greener Solution, and vice president and past president of Maine Plastics, both based in Zion, Ill.
“We get them to let us process there,” he said. “We have up to a half-dozen suppliers where we provide the equipment so that when it leaves the plant, the loads are full.”
Typically, Maine Plastics “reorganizes and updates” the supplier's process, said Render. “One company was feeding its grinders by hand. We put conveyers on the line and can feed the machine five times more material. We are also able to spend more time sorting it to make it more valuable.”
The trend of processing at a supplier's plant is going to grow, said Render.
“We have more and more companies approaching us and saying that they will sell us their scrap material, but that they want us to process it in their plant,” he said.
In addition, Maine Plastics is setting up some pilot programs in the Southwest that it may do with third parties, instead of by itself, said Spitulnik. “It seems as soon as we have new process capability to grow volume, more folks are looking to recycle.”