Sonoma, Calif. — Bans, taxes and warm feelings about saving the planet are great, but plastics recycling remains woefully underfunded.
That was the sentiment at the Western Plastics Association's annual conference in Sonoma.
"People talk about roads, but recycling is infrastructure too," said Lee Anderson, director of issues management and state government relations at Minneapolis-based General Mills Inc.
But efficiently and cleanly turning old cups and bags into sparkling new resin costs money, and lots of it.
"The consumer has been shielded from the cost of recycling," said Bruce Magnani, vice president of Sacramento, Calif.-based consultancy Houston Magnani & Associates.
Funding can come from a variety of sources, but government incentives are key.
Single-use items, mostly for food service, can be funneled into permanent products like decking, Stacey Luddy, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Bay Area consultancy More Recycling, said. But "the holy grail is circularity" — turning all those bags and bottles into yet more bags and bottles, again and again.
Speaker after speaker noted a downside to California's rigorous ban on single-use grocery-bags: namely, fewer and fewer retailers are collecting used bags. This has an add-on impact, Luddy said.
"When you don't recycle shopping plastic bags, you lose out on recycling newspaper and bread bags, too," Luddy said.
A few years ago, American companies sent their excess bottles and film to eager Asian recyclers. But that option is quickly vanishing, especially in the wake of China's National Sword, which virtually banned the import of scrap plastic.
"We were constantly playing the shell game of moving material," said David Hudson, vice president of commercial business at Houston-based Avangard Innovative, which primarily serves businesses.
In response, Americans are upping domestic capacity, but more funding is needed, said Ali Briggs-Ungerer, member services director of Washington-based Association of Plastic Recyclers.
"Investment in domestic infrastructure is needed. The China import ban highlighted this," Briggs-Ungerer said.
Infrastructure needs vary widely from state to state and even within states. Some places need funding for curbside pickup and materials recovery facilities. In eco-friendly California, MRFs capacity isn't the challenge as much as financing sophisticated machinery for sorting different kinds of plastics, Laurie Hansen, WPA executive and legislative director, said.
WPA is a Sacramento-based trade group of western U.S. and Canadian processors, packagers, compounders, resin producers and recyclers. It has about 80 members.