For the second straight year, post-consumer high density polyethylene recycling has remained stagnant.
The U.S. recycling rate for HDPE remained at 29.9 percent in 2011 with pounds recycled dropping slightly from 984 million pounds in 2010 to 974 million, according to the post-consumer plastics bottle recycling report issued by the American Chemistry Council's plastics division and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
2011 marks the second volume decline for HDPE recycling in the U.S. since 2002. Between 2006 and 2007, HDPE recycling volume fell 7.5 million pounds.
The recycling rate for HDPE rose from 26 percent in 2007 to 29.9 in 2010. However, the 2010 rate increase was miniscule, and so the rate has been virtually stagnant since 2009.
The rise in the recycling rate since 2007 can be attributed mostly to lower virgin resin sales.
“The recycling rate is higher, but it obscures the problem — which is that sales pounds of HDPE peaked in 2006 and 2007,” said Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of HDPE recycler Envision Plastics, in a presentation at the Resin Outlook Conference in Toronto. The Oct. 2-3 event was sponsored by Canadian Plastics magazine.
“Unfortunately, the [HDPE] recycling rate is going to stay where it is unless some new idea pushes recycling forward,” said Scott Saunders, general manager of KW Plastics Recycling in Troy, Ala. “We need a shot to the system, but I don't see anything out there, or any new major programs coming on,” he said by telephone.
Saunders would like to see the HDPE recycling rate at “closer to 50 percent.” The problem, he said, is not reprocessing capacity but available post-consumer material. “We can't grow without more materials,” he said.
Because of stagnant virgin resin sales, the potential volume of HDPE available for recycling is also not increasing. Virgin HDPE sales dipped nearly 9 percent in 2008, then a slight uptick in 2009 pushed them to 3.37 billion pounds. But for the past two years, they have dropped — to 3.29 billion pounds in 2010, and 3.26 billion pounds in 2011.
Part of that decline can be traced to lightweighting in packaging for products such as laundry detergent. “Many HDPE bottle applications are using product concentrates, which means an increasing number of smaller bottles — or fewer bottles made for the total number of uses,” said the report.
In her Oct. 3 talk, Ettefagh said: “The advent of single-stream recycling in 2009 gave [collection] a bump, but supply is shrinking. The supply of curbside collected scrap is stagnant — inelastic.”
That shrinking HDPE supply is compounded by poorer yields from bales.
“The quality of feedstock is diminishing, partly due to bad single-stream programs and because the export market is not as concerned about quality,” she said.
The report agrees with her. “The quality of available post-consumer bottle material fell slightly for HDPE,” it said, noting that yields dropped from 82 percent in 2010 to 79.5 percent in 2011.
One potential way to boost the amount of HDPE recycled would be if cities and municipalities took a more aggressive approach to collecting plastic material, Saunders said.
“We need more cities to be more aggressive in recycling more plastic materials,” Saunders said. “Not enough cities understand that plastics recycling can at least be revenue-neutral — and also profitable,” he said.
Although there is more discussion of extended producer responsibility and its potential to increase the amount of materials collected, Saunders does not think that will occur in the short-term. “I don't think it's a reality in today's political environment,” he said.
The amount of HDPE processed by reclaimers in the U.S. rose by almost one-third in 2011 to 843 million pounds with the six largest HDPE reclaimers processing 667 million pounds — or 79 percent of the total. The remaining 20 HDPE reclaimers recycled just 176 million pounds.
Even though export markets purchased 26 percent less resin in 2011, U.S. companies imported twice as much HDPE in bales — 51 million — as they did in 2010.
Non-food bottles, at 38 percent, and pipe, at 32 percent, accounted for 70 percent of the end-use markets for recycled HDPE.
Total industry capacity, estimated at 1.07 billion pounds, is virtually identical to 2010 and essentially unchanged since 2005 when capacity stood at 1.1 billion pounds. Capacity utilization, at 80 percent, remained virtually the same as in 2010, the report said.
The challenging market conditions and price environment discourage future investments, said Ettefagh. A recycling plant that produces 3 tons of resin an hour and is located in the most efficient site requires a capital investment of more than $13.3 million, not including overhead, freight, purchasing or material costs, she said in her presentation.
She told the resin outlook conference that the next potential target area for plastic recyclers could be polypropylene because it is produced in large volumes, 17 billion pounds annually, in North America, and is a safe plastic environmentally.
“Today, there is very little post-consumer recovery of polypropylene,” she said. The all-bottle report estimated that 43.8 million pounds of post-consumer PP was collected and recycled in 2011 compared to 35.4 million in 2010.
“But there is 2 billion pounds available in easy-to-recycle short-lived gizmos,” Ettefagh said. “What's more, prices have doubled in two years and will likely stay higher, so recycling [of polypropylene] will be profitable.”