Recycling household plastic containers can be a challenging endeavor. Since all plastics are not alike, we need to know which types of plastics our municipality accepts for recycling. Hair care products, beverages, laundry detergents, yogurts, margarines, salad dressings, frozen dinners, household cleaners, condiments, pet foods, body lotions (you name it) are available in plastic containers. Since different plastics have different properties, the containers we so enthusiastically recycle often contain more than one type of plastic. Plastic properties such as strength, toughness, flexibility, barrier to moisture or gas, and melting point are all important factors which help to maintain the integrity of packaged goods. Piling these unlike containers together for recycling can be a problem not only for our local municipal recycling depot but for the commercial reclaimer who ultimately melts and reforms these containers.
Rinsing or cleaning these plastic hold whatevers and depositing them into a recycling bin gives us a sense of accomplishment. Yes, we are keeping them out of landfills. Or are we?
What if the lids, caps, and even the container bodies themselves aren't recyclable by our municipality? What happens then? And, is there anything we can do about it?
To make plastic recycling more convenient, The Society of Plastics, Inc., introduced a resin code identification system. (Those number symbols stamped on the bottom of plastic household containers). For a complete listing of codes visit: Plastic Resin Codes.
In the world of plastic recycling, many municipalities collect the clear plastic used to produce most beverage bottles (PETE #1) and the stiffer plastic often used for milk, juice and laundry products (HDPE #2). But what about the clear plastic found in food packaging (PVC #3) or the plastic used for squeezable bottles (LDPE #4) or the plastic used in yogurt cups (PP#5) or egg cartons (PS#6) or an agglomeration of the above (Other #7)?
While all plastics are recyclable, not all municipalities and reclaimers possess the technology required to separate the various types of plastic. In some cases, the market demand for a particular reclaimed plastic is not high enough to make recycling the plastic economically feasible (forget the fact it would be eco-consciously the right thing to do).
Despite all the good intentions, money makes the world go round. What drives the overall recycling market? The price for recovered materials drives it. Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) physically sort and separate materials such as plastics, glass, metals and paper from the collected recyclables stream. The reclaimed materials are baled and sold to secondary materials processors throughout the world1.
As with any market, technology and process improvement become focused where demand and profits are found. For the materials recovery market (I like to call it, “MRF World”), the global demand for paper soon became the main focus. Why? The answer rests with Asia. Due to the lack of forests in Asia and the Pacific Rim, overseas buyers looked toward the United States and Europe to purchase reclaimed paper. As Asian economies grew, production capacities of Asian paper milling operations began to outpace the recovered paper available. To run these operations efficiently and to keep up with product demand, Asian mills needed more recovered paper. As the demand grew, so did the prices Asian buyers were willing to pay to secure the commodity; the recovered paper market was now awash with strong demand and revenue streams! “MRF World” wanted paper and municipalities heard the cry!
The profits from this over-heated paper market helped to support the recycling of other materials like plastic (a not so profitable venture). So, what happened? Just like the stock market, the bubble burst. In 2008, with the cost of fuel increasing, Asian mills began sourcing recovered paper from shorter distances. In the U.S., purchases from the east coast stopped; west coast purchases were curtailed. Soon the global economic downturn reduced demand for all types of goods. With Asian factories producing less goods, the demand for paper products like reclaimed corrugated carton material weakened. Prices fell. Buying dried up; the paper recovery market was now hard hit!
According to an article in Waste Age, Exports account for approximately 18% of all recovered paper sales in the United States. While some consider that a small percentage of the marketplace, movements in supply and demand of less than 1 percent can cause market price shifts of $20 per ton to $30 per ton.
With paper representing as much as 70% of revenue for many MRFs, it is no surprise that the operational dependency on paper backfired. "Too many papers in one basket!” To keep operations running, MFRs started charging processing fees to handle paper. Municipalities once used to receiving payments for their paper were now paying fees or sending the paper to landfills; unfortunately, sending the paper to landfills was sometimes less costly than paying MRFs to take it. So, how does this affect recycling now? Will more effort be focused on the reclamation of lesser recycled materials?
The entire materials recovery industry is under one big adjustment. Adjusting to such a sudden market shift takes time. While some MRFs have simply gone out of business, others are squeaking by. For many operations, the big question is, ” Is it worthwhile to run less profitable recovery streams?” Except for the captive PET (#1) plastic market, many operations are running at reduced volumes (some off 50% from previous levels). As facilities wrestle with the fact “it is not business as usual”, some may downsize; others may look for new sources of revenue. Given the past year of chaos, is the future of recycling in jeopardy? No, not a chance. Strong public opinion in favor of recycling is supported by locally, established collection programs; “MRF World” will regroup and recycling will move forward. The current difficulties will lead to opportunities. A handful of market indicators show that now may be the time to put the recycling industry on a much stronger foundation. Could that foundation be made of plastic? ...to be continued in my next posting
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References for this article were obtained from:
1www.enterpriseco.com,”MRF-Material Recovery Facility”, Plastic News, “Bottle Collection Promising Despite Pricing”, Verespej, M., May 25, 2009., Waste Age, “Is Export Important?”, Moore, B., Oct. 2009, www.ides.com, Recycling Today, “Paper Commodity Report”, July 7, 2008, Recyclingbizz.com, “Resin prices threaten market recovery, say EuPC”, Oct. 12, 2009, Waste & Recycling News, “In spite of recession, some recyclers expand”, Truini, J., June 8, 2009.