The first half of my recycling report card averaged a solid B. But you didn't think that I was going to let everyone off that easy, did you?
Automotive plastics recycling: D
Most automotive recycling is still aimed at the more valuable materials — metals. There have been promising signs for plastics — last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a ruling that could help metal recyclers handle more plastic fluff without worrying about low levels of polychlorinated biphenyl contamination.
But progress for plastics has been slow. We haven't seen much at all in North America beyond pilot recycling programs and small-scale projects. As the plastic content in cars increases — thanks to aggressive targets for fuel economy — I'm looking for a lot more activity on the recycling side.
Chemical recycling technologies: D
I'm afraid the internet has given new life to what we call chemical recycling — processes that convert waste plastic into chemicals or oil. You've seen the videos — contraptions where plastic goes in one end and liquid out the other. The assumption is the liquid can be used as fuel, or as a feedstock to make new products (including plastics).
But what's the point? If you're trying to make new plastic, conventional mechanical recycling is more efficient. Sortation systems are available to handle most of the so-called “hard-to-recycle” plastics. And if you're trying to create fuel, why are you adding energy to a process when you could just burn the plastic?
Polystyrene recycling: C-
OK, that sounds like a low grade, but that's actually a huge improvement from a few years ago.
In the early 1990s, virgin PS suppliers made a huge commitment to recycling, setting a goal of recovering 25 percent of post-consumer food service and packaging by 1995. They spent $70 million on the effort (including public relations), but it fizzled.
Now, once again, PS recycling is taking tentative steps forward. Sure, it's a response to product bans, in California, New York City and elsewhere. This time, the recycling business model appears to be sustainable.
Plastics processors: C-
Processors of all types are used to using recycled materials. Many seek it out, whether for cost savings, a sustainability advantage or because it's what customers want.
But remember this: Consumers want to recycle more plastic. Recyclers have the capacity to handle more. All they need is more consistent demand.
On design-for-recycling issues, there's been progress, and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers is doing a great job raising awareness of the issue. But products like shrink-sleeve labels are proof that recyclers still face challenges that could easily be avoided.
So I'll give processors a passing grade this year. But don't expect a gold star.
Maybe next year.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News.