Washington — China's ban on scrap recycling imports may be getting all the attention, but the plastics recycling industry needs to keep pushing on other priorities like boosting demand and handling increased contamination from new packaging.
At least that was the message from Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, at a Nov. 15 forum in Washington for America Recycles Day.
Speaking at a conference organized by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, he called on large consumer product companies to increase their commitment to using recycled plastics, including making long-term contractual commitments to recycling companies that will enable those firms to invest.
"We're really trying to embrace the brands," he said. "We're bringing them to the table and we're trying to encourage them to use recycled material."
APR launched its Recycling Demand Champion Challenge program in late October, and Alexander said it includes commitments from 10 companies to use 20,000 tons of post-consumer plastics over the next 18 months, in products like pallets, crates and other work-in-process products.
Those kinds of commitments are critical to sending an economic signal down the recycling chain, he said.
"It's a program we hope goes industry-wide," he said. "We're taking to the chemical industry about it. We're talking to the food industry."
Alexander said APR intends to hold companies to their written commitments.
"This will not be a green washing program," he said. "I refuse to allow it. If a company does not meet the commitment they made to us in their letter of commitment, they're not going to be part of the program going forward.
"The last thing we need is another company claiming their product is recyclable or asking us to please recycle without making any investment in it," he said.
Indeed, the need for investment was a theme Alexander came back to repeatedly in comments at the half-day forum, which focused on plastics recycling and attracted about 75 attendees from industry, government and trade associations.
There are challenges, like a plastics bottle recycling rate that fell from 31.1 percent in 2015 to 29.7 percent last year, and has hovered around 30 percent in recent years. Other countries recycle at much higher rates: German consumers recycle more than 90 percent of their PET bottles.
Alexander predicted that China's import ban, announced in July, will make conditions difficult for the U.S. recycling sector in the next six to eight months as demand in China falls off. But it will ultimately be a "necessary wake-up call" that will lead to more investment in U.S. recycling, he said.
He cautioned that a current focus on directing money for cleanup of litter in the ocean should not lead to less money for recycling, referring to a $150 million investment plan for land-based recycling and waste management programs to prevent plastic waste from leaking into the oceans. That was announced in October by the Washington-based Ocean Conservancy and several U.S. plastics and consumer product companies.
"We can spend $150 million on some marine debris collection issue in Southeast Asia, but the fact of the matter is we need to be a little more granular and we need to start at the bottom," he said.
"The point is what we don't want to have happen is all the infrastructure and investment goes just into marine debris," he said.
Susan Ruffo, managing director of international initiatives at Ocean Conservancy, said the group wants to work with U.S. recyclers, and is focusing now on Southeast Asia because that's the largest source of global ocean plastic litter.
“Ocean Conservancy has made improving waste collection and recycling rates in Southeast Asia the heart of our strategy for trash free seas because peer reviewed science shows that that is where we can have the most impact at present,” she said., “but we believe everyone has a role to play and are eager to work with U.S. recyclers and others to implement a suite of solutions, from product innovation and redesign to increased recyclability and more."
Alexander added that low virgin resin prices are a challenge to recyclers, as are some innovative but difficult-to-recycle packages.
"We have a conundrum here in that a lot of new packaging innovations are actually non-recyclable containers replacing historically recyclable containers," he said. "That's why design is so important for us to continue to work with."
He said municipal recycling systems are under the same stresses: Plastics packaging is changing faster than cities can communicate to residents what's OK to put in recycling bins.
"Everybody has to be in the circle and the brands have to play a bigger role," he said.