Covington, Ky. — Market forces in plastics recycling are creating a willingness to collaborate at a level that Jon Stephens says he has never seen before in his lengthy career.
Stephens is president of Natura PCR, a subsidiary of Avangard Innovative of Houston that reprocesses post-consumer low and linear low density polyethylene, which is then used to make new film, bags and extruded products.
"We all have to work together because if one fails and the other succeeds, that seems a little unstable to me," Stephens said at a recent recycling summit organized by plastics additives maker Baerlocher USA in Covington. "By working together, we can move the needle. If we all work in silos, we don't move fast enough."
And moving fast is a key in today's plastics recycling market as many consumer packaged goods companies have established post-consumer recycled-content goals for their packaging pegged to either 2025 or 2030. Or both.
These targets, which in some cases are quite aggressive, are creating a need for companies along the recycled plastics value chain to work more closely together in an effort to provide enough recycled content.
Plastics recycling has always been a laggard when compared with other commodities such as paper and metal. Even the most recycled resins, PET and high density PE, come in at less than 30 percent recovery.
But the upcoming CPG goals have Stephens hopeful that recycling rates could increase.
"I've never seen this much momentum in my entire career. That's a promising sign we're going to break through," Stephens said. "Is that next? Is that finally in 2025? A lot of these companies have made these commitments by 2025. That's going to look very poorly on them if they have to go back and back away from their commitments."
"There could be a mad rush in the next two years to get everybody up to speed or at least close," he said.
But he also allowed that some firms with recycled-content goals for their packaging ultimately could blame the supply chain if they fall short.
"There are going to be some companies that are successful and it's going to be proven that it can be done because they started earlier, they were willing to collaborate, they were willing to make adjustments where they needed to in their process," he said.
Robert Nunez is the director of new business development for Baerlocher USA's Special Additives division. He has a current focus on polyolefin recycling and sustainability.
"For recycling, we need a lot of different views," Nunez told the summit crowd.
"The good news is, after COVID, I think everybody came back with a vengeance. We want to do something about the environment, about nature, about the planet. So that's the good news," he said.
But there are challenges, Nunez said, including increasing regulation on the state level and a "terrible" image plastics currently faces in the view of many.
"I don't think it's just about survival," he said. "I think this is much more than that. I think, right now, we definitely need to collaborate to find new ways to increase recycling rates.
"The big thing is actually we need more incoming raw materials. … The consumer will have to provide that. No. 2, for the entire value chain to collaborate like they never have before to be able to take advantage of [that] raw material."
Another phenomenon that could help with wider acceptance of recycled plastics in packaging by both companies and consumers is what Stephens called the "brown napkin effect."
There once was a time when consumers predominately used white napkins and did not want to have much to do with their brown, recycled-content counterparts due to sanitary concerns and aesthetics. But that's all changed, and now brown napkins are commonplace.
Stephens sees a similar shift with recycled-content plastic packaging that might not always look like what consumers are used to seeing. PET bottles with a gray tint or films that have specks, for example, could gain wider acceptance as customers better understand recycled content.
Baerlocher USA is a unit of Munich-based Baerlocher GmbH, which has operations throughout the world and employs about 1,100. That includes about 100 in the United States at facilities in Cincinnati and Dover, Ohio.