Grand Rapids, Mich. — Plastics recycling is undergoing a profound change that will see the industry look much different in the years to come.
And those changes are not really that far away, believes Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability for the Plastics Industry Association.
"How the industry looks today, I think is going to look very, very different in how it looks in two to three years," she said at a sustainability workshop held in conjunction with the association's Re|focus Sustainability & Recycling Summit in Grand Rapids.
Holmes pointed to a litany of announced projects aimed at capturing more recycled plastics through either emerging technologies or the addition of traditional processing systems.
Growing domestic capacity, brought on largely by China's decision to crack down on recycled plastics imports, is helping transform the look of the industry in the United States. So is a growing movement by virgin resin makers to broaden their supply chains to start including recycled content offerings, Holmes said.
"We are beginning to see a major shift in the ecology of how plastics operates. It's an incredibly exciting time," she said.
At the same time, however, the plastics industry is under growing pressure due to pollution concerns, especially ocean plastics.
Holmes said plastics have a good environmental story to tell compared to other materials, including metal, glass and paper. But attention to difficulties at the end of plastics' life cycle is overshadowing that story these days.
"When you are looking at the total life cycle or environmental footprint of plastic products, there are sustainability advantages nearly across the board. But, unfortunately, those aren't the environmental impact areas that people see on a regular basis," Holmes said.
And then she displayed powerful photos of mismanaged plastic waste in the environment on screens in front of the crowd.
"This is what people see once they are done with the plastic products if they are not disposed properly," Holmes said. "One of my favorite sayings is the best thing about plastics is they are durable and lightweight. The worst think about plastics is they are durable and lightweight," Holmes said. And that creates problems when plastics enter the environment.
With the current challenges the industry faces, she said, also comes opportunities.
"We are seeing new domestic investment in an unprecedented way. So not only are we seeing new capacity come on line for handling our recyclables, we're also seeing new capabilities," she said.
Overall media attention has effectively highlighted the challenges, she said, but "maybe not done such a good job" in also reporting on the opportunities.
"Sustainability and plastics, those aren't words that you probably don't think go together if all you base your information off of the public media, right?" she asked the audience. "People have framed their perspectives of plastics very narrowly.
"But the reality is plastics offer a lot of sustainability opportunities. Plastics do an incredibly demanding job in the most effective way relative to other materials," she said.