Every year for Earth Day, we're deluged with reports, news releases and story pitches with an environmental hook. In that spirit, I thought it would be fun to revive a feature that I wrote annually when I covered recycling for Plastics News: the annual recycling report card.
Recycling in North America is on a roll in 2014. Relatively high prices for virgin resin, a recovering economy, and even China's Green Fence policy to discourage imports of hard-to-recycle trash have all put wind in the sails of recycling companies that survived the Great Recession. Now recyclers are poised to benefit — provided they can maintain the progress we've seen.
I don't believe in grade inflation, so the high marks on this year's report are well deserved.
PET recycling: C
PET is like the kid who does well in school, but his parents and teachers are always disappointed because he could do so much better — if he just applied himself!
PET missed an opportunity to see its recycling numbers rocket through the roof with the explosion of single-serve water. And we all know there's an easy fix that would result in huge gains for PET — more bottle deposit programs.
Still, the relatively strong recycling numbers for PET should help inoculate the sector from product bans like the one passed in Concord, Mass., in 2012.
After many years as the sidekick to PET recycling, high density PE is the superhero now. HDPE recyclers have adapted to a changing industry. When's the last time you saw a natural-color HDPE bottle? They used to be a mainstay for recyclers, the most reliable commodity because they could be used anywhere. But dairy customers have shifted — following consumer preferences — to white or yellow pigmented bottles. HDPE recyclers have adapted beautifully.
The shale gas revolution is going to impact PE recycling in ways we can only guess now. If virgin PE production increases, I'm confident that recyclers will find a way to handle the higher volume.
Plastic film recycling has quickly grown from a very small base to a real business, thanks to support from retailers and investments by companies like Hilex Poly Co. LLC, Trex Co. Inc., Petoskey Plastics Inc. and Command Packaging. If we start to see a slowdown in bag taxes and bans, these film recycling efforts will deserve much of the credit.
Remember how I said PET was the classic underachiever? PP is the opposite. It's like the kid who plays defensive line and makes the honor roll. PE recyclers get the credit — they started to collect and sort PP as a sideline.
Now many communities are intentionally adding PP to their curbside programs, and they're pleased to be able to offer environmentally minded citizens the opportunity to recycle a new category of plastic containers.
(Watch next week's Plastics News for part 2 of our recycling report card.)
Loepp is editor of Plastics News.