U.S. plastic reclaimers have the capacity to handle additional tonnage if China bans recycled plastic imports, as expected, at some point this year.
But those plastic recyclers need help on both the front end and the back end to make this work, according to the head of the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
“I want to make this point clear: The plastics recycling segment of the recycling infrastructure has the capacity to process this additional material. So if we can get it, collect it and separate it in a way that we can process it, we can process it and then we'll need the demand markets to pick up,” APR Executive Director Steve Alexander said.
Plastic reclaimers rely on material recovery facilities, which handle a wide range of recyclables, to separate out specific resin types. These MRFs specialize in sorting and baling their recyclables – plastic, paper, metal -- for sale to other operations that further process those materials.
“We think now is really the time for significant investment begin made in certain areas of the recycling infrastructure of this country. We think that the investment could be made in terms of material recovery facilities having the ability to separate our material as well as a renewed emphasis, we think, on the demand market,” Alexander said.
While MRFs vary in their functionality, many have historically focused on simply separating out only PET and high density polyethylene before creating mixed bales of other plastics. Some don't even go that far, while others do more.
So creating more robust sortation systems – think additional mechanical and optical equipment -- in the United States would allow a larger and cleaner supply to flow to domestic plastic reclaimers.
But the recycling industry has been under pressure in recent years due to lower commodity prices. That makes investment in new equipment more challenging.
Capturing more recycled plastic can't happen in a vacuum, however, as demand for the material needs to evolve as well.
Consumer product companies that have pledged to use more recycled content should “really enforce those commitments” to create demand that will allow recyclers to further invest in their systems, Alexander said. “If you have that demand at the end of the market, that will pull everything through back to the primary source of the material.”
Alexander, on a recent APR webinar, said his organization believes the domestic plastics recycling market could be impacted initially if a ban is instituted.
“Certainly there's concern on the horizon, right? There's no question about it. But we think that ultimately what will happen is we think that this will be a good outlook for the plastics recycling industry here, certainly within the next couple of years,” he said.
Alexander said he believes there could be what he calls a “short-term market blip, maybe six months,” as the domestic recycling market adjusts to the new normal.
Recycling shipments to China often involve bales deemed not worth sortation and processing in the United States. With less expensive labor and costs, China has willingly taken that material in the past and made a go of it.
But not anymore.
A recent documentary film on plastics recycling in China was a factor in that country's decision to move away from recycled plastics imports, Alexander said.
“We do know that some of the influence of this was a film that was made internally called ‘Plastic China,' which actually was reviewed by several people in the premier's office. They found it not to be of their liking,” he said.
The timing of a China ban on recycled plastic import is a matter of debate for importing countries, Alexander said, because of differing information the Chinese government has put out.
A ban on importation into China could come as early as September, he said, based on a recent notification made to the World Trade Organization. “It's still a pretty fluid situation.”
“From an APR perspective, we're trying to be cautiously optimistic about this because we think that the ability to wean ourselves off the Chinese market, in the long term, is a good thing, certainly, for the plastics recycling industry,” Alexander said.
While China is working toward banning recycled plastic imports, Alexander said there still might be a way for the material to ultimately enter that country legally. “We do know that China is looking to move material through their recycling parks. They are going to exempt materials out of the ban as long as it goes through their recycling parks. We're trying to get a handle on what all that means,” he said.