Updated Nov. 29: PET recycling rates in the United States could see a significant boost without adding any additional volume to what's already being collected, according to a new study from Closed Loop Partners.
The study, “Cleaning the rPET Stream,” recommends a series of interventions in the current system, including capital investments for newer technologies at material recovery facilities, improvement of packaging design for recyclability and “creating more reliable agreements among parties.”
Taken together, these moves could lower costs by 10 percent and improve yield by 21 percent for material recovery facilities, reprocessors and end-users, the study indicates. The changes ultimately could increase the overall recycling rate of PET by 6 percent, or nearly 80 million pounds, each year.
“I think the big surprise, the solution if you will, to try to improve the cost structure of [recycled] PET is not necessarily increasing volume or putting more carts on the street,” said Ellen Martin, vice president of impact and strategic initiatives at Closed Loop.
“You can make a ton of improvements just focusing on what's happening at the MRF and reprocessors and working there to drive the quality of bales and improve the material that's making it through,” she said.
The study lays out a series of moves that including the addition of more sorting and quality control equipment at MRFs.
While these facilities are facing their own struggles these days with lower recyclable commodity prices, Martin said the study found that a typical $500,000 investment in optical sorters and even robotic equipment could have a payback time of one to five years depending on the specifics.
“Obviously for a MRF, PET certainly has value. I think the ROI [return on investment] at the individual MRF level is there as well,” Martin said.
Other ways to improve economics include systems that directly combine recycled plastic flake with virgin resin to make new products, a move that would cut out the need to create recycled resin pellets. Equipment to make container preforms directly from flake, instead of from pellets, also would cut costs, the study indicates.
The study's research and analysis was conducted by Resource Recycling Systems, a consulting firm, with help from the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the National Association for PET Container Resources.
Creating additional demand for recycled resin and creating containers that ultimately are easier to recycle by MRFs and then plastics reprocessors also can have an impact, Martin said.
“It's, in part, about making investments and improving infrastructure. But it's also about decisions that are made in terms of designing for recyclability and the agreements that happen between players. That actually improves sustainability and reduces volatility when commodity prices go up and down with the price of oil,” Martin said.
A commitment by brand owners to design their packaging for recyclability, the study estimates, could have a 5-percent yield increase for reprocessors. A formalized commitment by brand owners to use recycled content also helps reprocessors gain better access to financing that would allow for system improvements.
“The study identifies a set of levers that can be pulled to clear the way for brand owners to make the additional investment in the use of rPET. If the right combination of these levers can be pulled, costs for rPET will decline and use will increase,” said Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer for Nestlé Waters North America, in a statement.
Closed Loop Partners calls itself “an investment platform that invests in sustainable consumer goods, recycling and the development of the circular economy.” Investors include many well-known companies, including Walmart, Coca-Cola Co., Pepsico Inc., Procter & Gamble Co., and Nestlé Waters.
The report is available at closedlooppartners.com.