As more recyclers across the globe shut down — some for economic reasons, others due to government intervention — Parc Corp.'s Kathy Xuan has been pondering over a question: “How to increase ice cream sales in the winter?”
The metaphor highlights the bleak business environment for the plastic recycling industry. Xuan said she attended a committee and board meeting of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) last week and it were clear that “all recycling businesses are slow.”
The Romeoville, Ill.-based recycling industry veteran traveled to Asia multiple times earlier this year to check the pulse of the global recycling industry.
China is tightening up imports, Xuan said. “I don't anticipate China to ban imported scrap right away, but it has been put on the agenda.” She explained that the ban was first proposed by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) last year, and supported by China's first-ranked vice premier Zhang Gaoli.
“The MEP is in the discussion stage of a ban. In the meantime, it's controlling import licenses very strictly.”
On the local level, Xuan said, the government also is tightening enforcement. Laizhou, Shandong province, for instance, shut down every scrap recycler of any type of material in the entire city last month, including locally sourced and imported materials. “Armed police were there and no vehicles were allowed to transport any scrap materials.”
The Chinese government is pushing for all plastics recyclers to move into designated industrial parks, but Xuan contends that the associated lofty expenses make it impossible to run a profitable business.
She added that a lot of Chinese recyclers who had relocated operations to other parts of Asia due to China's Green Fence initiatives have not seen much success. Malaysia also is contemplating a ban, she said, and India already took the lead to implement a ban for three months before reopening the door earlier this month.
“Recycling must be done locally,” she concluded, instead of relying on other countries to process the waste.
But the market in North America is far from conducive. “The price of reprocessed material is so low that it's not worth recycling,” she said. “To the point that an increasing percentage of plastics scrap is going into landfill.
“It's not that it can't be recycled, it's just that nobody has the economic incentive to do it.”
Companies must align themselves with the market trends, Xuan said. One way to move forward, she said, is to partner with brand owners and plastic processors and boost sorting and reprocessing in the U.S. Her firm Parc is strengthening its supply chain with both manufacturers and end-users worldwide, focusing on its unique technology to recycle multi-layer film from flexible packaging and scrap, and seeking extrusion partners to process in the United States, she added.