The plastics industry may have something to be proud of — a very high recycling rate for post-industrial plastics.
The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. shared the good news at the recent Plastics Recycling conference in Dallas. SPI's new study showed that nearly 90 percent of all plastic scrap — specifically, post-industrial waste — is recycled or recovered for energy.
That's a fantastic record. But is it accurate?
I suspect that it's a good ballpark number, but probably a bit inflated.
SPI came up with the estimate after polling material suppliers, plastics processors and brand owners. The survey asked respondents about the amount of post-industrial scrap generated in the United States that was handled at their facilities in 2013.
Respondents reported that they had generated and handled 2.3 billion pounds of post-industrial material in 2013, of which 2 billion pounds were recycled.
But only 12.9 percent of those surveyed responded.
Is it safe to assume that the companies with the best recycling practices would be more likely to respond to a poll like this? I'd assume so, but we'll only know if more companies participate next time. And the good news is that SPI is doing the survey again this year, and they seem to be getting a better response rate.
Kim Holmes, SPI's senior director of recycling and diversion, acknowledged to our Jim Johnson that there was room for improvement in that response rate of the 2014 survey. But she pointed out that the rate already was roughly double of what SPI got in a previous survey.
So the number should be getting more accurate.
Holmes told us that she was surprised by just how large the recycling rate is among the survey participants.
“I was pretty confident we were going to see high numbers, but certainly 90 percent, that exceeds expectations,” Holmes said.
I had the same reaction to the numbers. My assumption has always been that nearly all industrial scrap has value, and plastics processors aren't in the business of throwing away something that has potential value. Plus there's the basic urge to do the right thing.
Most plastics company managers are environmentalists, too. They make plastic products because they believe plastics are often the most environmentally advantaged material, when you consider the big picture and account for energy savings, affordability — and recyclability.
Still, there's a voice in the back of my head that wonders if I'm giving the industry a little too much credit. Most plastics processors I visit are the cream of the crop, the kind of firms known for best practices. When I talk to recyclers, they tell me that yes, indeed, there are plastics processors that won't answer their phone calls, and turn down business. And some plastic scrap is just too expensive to recycle cost-effectively, because of contamination and use of multiple materials.
If it was easy to recycle everything, those coffee K-cups would have been recyclable a long time ago, right?
I'm glad to see SPI collecting and quantifying post-industrial recycling, and I encourage more companies to participate in the effort. And I hope that as the numbers get more accurate, they confirm all of the good things that I expect they'll say about the industry's scrap recycling record.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”