What a difference five years can make.
By 2009, plastic bottle recycling was well established nationally, but recycling of the remaining rigid plastics (yogurt containers, oversized totes, etc.) was still relatively rare. After decades of plastics recycling experience, communities were still hesitant to increase recycling of non-bottle rigid plastics — primarily containers and "bulky" items such as toys and crates. And yet, brand companies were asking for more recycled resins — both quantity and choices of resin — to meet sustainability goals.
In the spring of 2009, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) and other stakeholders, including the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) Plastics Division, resolved to jump-start recycling of these non-bottle rigid plastics with the formation of APR's Rigid Plastics Recycling Program. The outcome has been impressive:
• recycling of rigid plastics tripled between 2007 and 2012, with more than 1 billion pounds recycled in 2012;
• rigid plastics is now the fastest growing category of plastics recycling;
• more than 60 percent of Americans have access to a rigid plastics collection program; and
• food-grade recycled polypropylene is emerging with huge potential.
How did all this happen so quickly? APR led the way in large part by bringing together all the stakeholders, from recyclers to users of recycled plastic, to focus solely on rigid plastics — and to identify and overcome some stubborn obstacles.
The Rigids Group at APR is comprised of resin producers, reclaimers, government, converters and brand-name companies who commit to three-year service terms on behalf of their organizations, which provides stability and continuity on important strategic objectives. Initial conversations among this group made it clear that the various entities throughout this recycling chain operate profoundly different enterprises. So among other things, the Rigids Program set about creating a common language for bale specifications that is now becoming recognized nationwide.
Beyond curbside, the Rigids Program saw that grocery stores annually generate 350 million pounds of valuable resins (mostly high-value, food-grade polypropylene and polyethylene) behind the counter, the majority being landfilled or incinerated — and with support from ACC, developed a program to help stores capture that material for recycling, including technical assistance, best practices, videos and a website.
The Rigids Program also has responded to unusual market forces that threaten the viability of non-bottle rigids recycling. For example, as plastics collection increased over the years, material recovery facilities (MRF) acquired growing amounts of non-bottle rigid plastics that frequently found markets overseas as lower-value bales of mixed rigid plastics, stripped of valuable bottles. When China instituted its Green Fence program in early 2013 and discontinued buying these bales, the market quickly weakened. MRFs found themselves with an abundance of rigid plastics and the need for additional domestic buyers.
The Rigids Program worked with Moore Recycling to develop a graphic tool called the Sort for Value Matrix that uncovers the true value inherent in those mixed rigids bales. Instead of settling for a lower value product (mixed bales), recyclers and reclaimers can use the matrix to see how additional sorting adds tremendous value to these plastics — up to 13 times more value. This added value expands options for recyclers and strengthens the domestic market. More and more, MRFs are finding that domestic reclaimers are, indeed, interested in buying these valuable plastics.
So what's next? The Rigids Group has begun innovative public-private partnerships with various states to increase rigids recycling — states like Wisconsin, which views waste plastics as a resource and a source of recycling jobs, and California, which can use the grocery rigids recycling program to meet waste diversion goals. Similar partnerships also are underway in the Carolinas and Oregon and are intended to become models that can be replicated nationwide. And a new push will begin to capture more bulky rigids such as buckets, crates and lawn furniture at curbside.
In a very short period of time, this stakeholders' initiative has succeeded in significantly jumpstarting rigid plastics recycling — with no government mandates.
But, there's more to be done. APR's Rigid Plastics Recycling Program and ACC's Plastics Division will continue to work together to collect data, conduct bale sorts, create outreach materials, and more.
We've learned that by working together we can make great progress. Now let's see what the next five years will bring.
Steve Alexander is executive director of APR; Steve Russell is vice president of plastics for ACC; Steve Sikra is section head for Procter and Gamble Co. and chairman of APR's Rigid Plastics Recycling Program.