There just might be big business in the small stuff, if plastic recyclers can figure out a way.
The Association of Plastic Recyclers is launching a new effort to help identify potential ways to capture the smaller fraction of the plastic recycling stream — think items less than 3 inches in size — that typically end up getting thrown out in the recovery process.
The problem essentially has been that sortation equipment is not designed to capture these smaller containers, tubes and caps.
But APR Executive Director Steve Alexander said the material represents a potentially valuable source of recycled plastic. So his trade group wants to take a look at the recovery issue.
“There's always been this concern or recognition that a lot of the smaller containers, simply due to their size and the way the infrastructure works, they fall through screens and we're not capturing that material,” he said.
“There's always been a discussion about how much of that material is out there. And are some places capturing that material? Is it worthwhile to capture that material?” he said.
APR intends to find out.
“So really what we're trying to do is get a handle on everything that's out there. How much material is out there that is classified as small, which is essentially less than three inches,” he said. “What are the MRFs [material recovery facilities] doing? What are the recyclers doing to capture this material?”
A first phase of the work, currently under way, is research into what processing facilities and brand owners are doing to see that more of this smaller material is captured for recycling instead of falling through sortation equipment.
APR is surveying facilities and talking to companies interested in seeing their small containers recycled to help determine potential recovery solutions.
“Is there something out there that is working? Could this become a best management practice or template for other separation facilities to use? If there is nothing out there working, is there something that we can work from an equipment or technology basis that we can create that ultimately captures more material?” Alexander said.
After some initial research, APR will step back and look at the information the group has gathered and determine the next step.
“It's just an effort to get our arms around what really is going on in the market,” Alexander said. “What else can we do going forward?”
Alexander said the issue of capturing more of these smaller plastic items has come up during the past couple of years as recyclers search for more material as bale yields have fallen. He has heard anecdotal evidence regarding the issue, but APR wants to have more formal information. “We'd like to have a basis of data because we are a data-driven organization. What's really out there? We don't want to rely on the anecdotal evidence,” Alexander said.
Brand owners, he said, are interested in finding ways to have their small containers recaptured to allow them to tell a good environmental story to customers.