Nashville, Tenn. — The Association of Plastic Recyclers is launching a certification program for post-consumer plastic, hoping that it can boost its use in the market.
The Washington-based group did a soft rollout of the program during the annual Plastics Recycling Trade Show and Conference, held Feb. 17-19 in Nashville.
"We see this as leveling the playing field for PCR," said Liz Bedard, director of the olefins and rigids programs with the trade association.
APR says the program meets a market need as consumer product companies — facing more questions about their use of plastics — are pledging to use significantly more recycled content in their packaging and other products.
But, Bedard said, those companies say it can be hard to know if a recycled plastic material comes from post-consumer sources, as opposed to factory scrap, called post-industrial recycling.
While Bedard said both types of recycling are important and APR does not want the program to negatively impact post-industrial recycling, she said the post-consumer sector was pushing for a recognized way of communicating about its material.
"Both those manufacturing post-consumer resins and those wanting to purchase post-consumer resin want there to be a certifiable distinction between PCR and PIR since the source of these materials are very different," Bedard said.
Bedard said planning for the certification started about 18 months ago, with APR getting questions from both buyers and sellers of recycled plastic about how they can be sure of post-consumer claims.
"I had a brand-name company come to me and say, 'I'm purchasing PCR, and two of the three bids I got were very close and the other one was really low. I'm wondering if that might be post-industrial, but there's nothing I can do or say about it,'" Bedard said.
As well, she said that companies making post-consumer recycled plastic have raised similar questions to APR, saying that they believe some people are marketing post-industrial material as post-consumer.
"I had a plastics reclaimer approach me and say, 'I'm selling PCR. I think people out there are saying they're selling PCR, but it's post-industrial,'" she said.
Conversations like that prompted APR to start the program, Bedard said.
"When you have both ends of the equation, supply and demand having similar needs, that was the birth of this idea," she said.
Bedard said there are already companies in the market that will certify post-consumer plastic, but they can use different criteria to qualify a material.
APR felt that it could help by endorsing a certification process around post-consumer content, and then in effect qualifying various companies as being able to certify to the APR standard, she said.
"What was really needed was leveling the playing field so that all of the PCR-certified companies, those companies going out and certifying PCR, were doing it the same way," Bedard said. "It was apples and oranges and bananas. There wasn't consistency, and that wasn't good for the industry."
The program is using a definition of post-consumer content in the ISO 14021 standard, which defines it as material generated by households as well as by commercial, industrial or institutional facilities.
Businesses, however, must be the end users of the product, such as crates, totes or other containers emptied by businesses during their operations, and that can no longer be used for their intended purposes.
It will not include scrap material left over from manufacturing operations. The program does, however, distinguish between post-consumer material from residential sources and "regular" PCR from nonresidential sources, Bedard said.
One California state law will also be a certification standard, APR said. Recycled plastic that meets regulations in California's Senate Bill 270, which governs standards for reusable bags, will be considered certified PCR, APR said.
APR said it will not collect fees from either the certifying companies or a company seeking certification of its recycled materials, and it said a company does not need to be an APR member to participate.
In addition, the association will not be certifying PCR content in end products, at least for now.
The program will start by certifying plastic recycling companies and the materials they make — it covers all resin types — but could in a second phase expand to directly certify packaging used by brand owners, Bedard said.
APR said it's developing a website that will provide a program overview, as well as list the certification companies it's endorsed and the APR members who produce certified PCR.
As well, APR said it plans to establish a five-member technical support group to arbitrate any issues of concern within the program. The group will include representatives from APR, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission, a certifying company and an ISO representative.
Bedard said it's too early to quantify how much of an impact the program could have in the market for recycled resin, but she said it's possible it could be substantial.
One prominent municipal recycling official praised the APR program in comments at another recent forum.
Bridget Anderson, New York City's deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, told an audience at a waste and plastics conference Feb. 26 at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, that she wanted to give a "shoutout" to APR for its new certification program for recycled plastic.
"That is a game-changer," Anderson said.