ATLANTA — The market for using recycled PET in bottle applications is getting stronger every year, which means the quality level of the recycled material needs to be as high as possible, according to one industry expert.
But at the same time, NAPCOR President Tom Busard said, those same PET bales are under pressure due in no small part due to factors including increased contamination from single-stream curbside collection.
Use of recycled PET in bottles — both food and beverage and non-food applications — jumped to 475 million pounds in 2013, up from 326 million pounds just the year before. Those are the latest statistics from the National Association for PET Container Resources.
“This is really the first time that bottles have gotten close to the fiber numbers,” Busard said at the Packaging Conference in Atlanta.
Fiber use still led the way in 2013, consuming 558 million pounds of recycled PET, according to NAPCOR numbers. The gap between bottle and fiber use has been narrowing in recent years. But as late as 2008, fiber use was just about double bottle use.
“This is where the stuff is going and this is where it needs to go. That's the growth area,” he said about bottle use. “The fiber guys are doing well. They're going to continue to take big, big chunks of it. But the quality level has got to be bottle grade, because that's the area where this stuff is going.”
And that means there needs to be continued investment in recycling technology to keep up with the demand for higher quality recycled PET, he said. “That's why it's very important that everyone look at the innovations necessary to get the materials so it goes into this kind of a package.”
Growing demand for bottle-grade recycled PET comes at a time when the entire recycling industry is faced with contamination problems brought on by the growing popularity of single-stream recycling. Commingling recyclables in a large roll-out cart makes it much easier on residents, but more difficult on recyclers and then plastic processors to capture quality material.
Materials such as glass, plastic, paper and metal will cross-contaminate material streams even while more tonnage is being pushed through the system.
And that means yield loss for recyclers.
“Everybody agrees yield is down, not just a couple of recyclers in outlying areas that might have old equipment,” Busard said.
“The single-steam, while it will bring more tons in, is potentially something we're going to have to take a look at,” he said.
Increasing PET tonnage also will require increased investment.
“The reclaimers and the recycling industry, they have to upgrade their technology. They just simply have to,” he told the crowd. “You can't complain about it, you just need to do it.”
Busard sees the issue from a couple of different perspectives. Not only is he chairman of NAPCOR, he also is chief procurement officer for Plastipak Packaging Inc.
His company has just spent $11 million on sorting equipment. “We're not going to get any more bottles or any more pounds through the plant. We're just going to be able to sort and utilize the feedstock that's out there. That's the kind of investment we think folks are making and needing to make to keep up with the technology and be able to make high quality PCR [post-consumer resin].”
Other factors influencing bale quality, Busard said, include: the proliferation of packaging of all types; the fact that not all PET packages are designed for recycling; that ongoing light weighting means more sorting and processing per pound of clean flake created; and that it's still viewed as a sellers' market “to some extent” with strong domestic and export demand.