Action on plastics may be blessing
Decision by Asian countries to refuse US trash could spur innovation
Decisions by China and other Asian countries to stop accepting “miscellaneous” plastics for recycling ultimately could be a blessing, a chemistry industry leader said.
Earlier this year the Asian nations stopped importing U.S. plastic for recycling, which created a backlog of No. 3-7 plastics and decisions to effectively put those materials into landfills.
The Intermunicipal Relations Committee in Blair County is among those that have stopped taking those materials, and it recently led IRC Executive Director John Frederick to condemn the U.S. plastics industry for having failed to create a domestic infrastructure that could handle them.
“They dropped the ball,” Frederick said.
In response, an industry spokesman conceded recently that the current situation is untenable.
“Clearly, China has thrown a wrench into the works,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council.
Nevertheless, China’s action could ultimately be a blessing, Christman said.
“It’s a short-term disruption, but it’s also an opportunity,” Christman said. “I think the China action will spur innovation.”
The domestic recycling of miscellaneous plastics may be nowhere close to where it needs to be now, but it has been growing, according to Christman.
The recycling of “non-bottle rigid” plastics increased more than four-fold in the decade before 2016, reaching 1.5 billion pounds, according to Christman.
Plastic film recycling doubled in a little more than a decade after 2005, reaching 1.3 billion pounds, he said.
“There has been dramatic growth,” he stated.
The goal is to recover 100 percent of plastic packaging by 2040, Christman said.
“(But) there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.
It will take participation by consumers, government and industry; the creation of new technologies; and the creation of additional markets, he said.
His organization is working with communities and groups like the Recycling Partnership, which has donated recycling carts to 29 million households, he said.
It has a memorandum of understanding with the Environmental Protection Agency on the recycling of polyethylene film, the material comprising grocery bags, so shoppers can bring them back to 20,000 stores, he said.
The goal is to double the amount of film recycled yet again, he said.
The material can be made into plastic decking, he said.
Investments are being made by packaging firms, in partnership with major brands, according to Allyson Wilson, spokeswoman for the Chemistry Council.
Promising technologies include conversion of manufactured plastics back to their constituent materials, allowing for the re-creation of the original products, according to Christman.
A company called Agilyx does that with polystyrene, he said.
Another promising technology involves recycling mixed plastics into the equivalent of crude oil, which can be converted into new plastic products or fuel, according to Christman.
Yet another involves development of compatibilizers, chemicals that enable otherwise incompatible materials to be processed together, Christman said.
That could be especially useful eventually for handling the increasing amount of “multi-layer” packaging, which can include a layer of polyethylene and a layer of nylon, as described by Wilson.
Proper sorting key
Generally speaking, for now, recycling streams require good quality material sorted well so that high-quality products can result, according to Christman.
Breakthroughs are needed so the processes make economic sense, Christman said.
Consumer confusion has been a hindrance, according to Joanne Shafer, deputy executive director and recycling coordinator for the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority.
Among its causes is the incompatibility of materials that seem compatible.
Rigid kitty litter buckets and flexible milk jugs are both No. 2 HDPE, but the buckets are injection molded, while the jugs are blow molded, resulting in differences in the length of the polymer chains, which in turn results in differences in the melt index, making them incompatible for recycling together, Shafer said.
Similarly, No. 3 PVC looks like No. 1 PET, but if PVC is mixed with PET and the PET is remanufactured for carpeting, the PVC creates black streaks that can’t be dyed properly, Shafer said.
Yet there are instances where seemingly incompatible materials are OK together, she said.
It’s not a problem to recycle paperclips with office paper because the metal is skimmed out during remanufacturing, Shafer said.
And yet it’s problematic to leave plastic report covers in with that same office paper because the “plastic gums up the works,” Shafer said.
Despite its problems with Nos. 3-7, the plastics industry has done well with No. 1 and 2 bottles, according to Frederick.
Early on, the industry focused on where it could do the most good quickly, Wilson said. No. 1 PET was an initial success because it was a “no-brainer,” easy to convert to polyester for carpet, fleece and yoga pants, Wilson said. “It was a highly valued resin,” she said.
The markets for other resins have been slower to develop, Wilson said.
Despite slow progress on recycling the miscellaneous plastics, the industry has made nice advances in a recycling-related matter — “source reduction,” or cutting back on the quantity of material used in packaging, Wilson said.
Centre still takes miscellaneous plastics
Unlike the IRC, the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority is still taking miscellaneous plastics — in six dropoff locations, according to Joanne Shafer, the agency’s deputy director and recycling coordinator.
The Centre County authority has enough leverage to get those miscellaneous plastics recycled, but it can no longer earn revenue on them, and it is only taking them now as a community service and “labor of love,” Shafer said.
The authority has added a few restrictions. Those include no longer accepting plastic containers for flower sets, she said.
China is blocking miscellaneous plastic in the hopes of creating its own domestic market and because of rampant contamination of shipments from the West has inspired recycling officials here to take a sterner tone with sloppy thinking by those who believe in the cause.
People need to keep in mind that the materials they recycle become feedstock for manufacturing, Shafer said.
“If what you send to manufacturers is contaminated, it’s a wasted effort,” Shafer said. “You have to make new products out of what you recycle or recycling won’t fulfill its promise.”
“Wishcycling” — putting materials into bins that one feels ought to be recycled, and figuring that someone will pull it out if it’s not — is unacceptable, Shafer said.
An example in her experience was the placement of a wading pool at one of the Centre dropoff sites, she said.
It may have been well-meaning, but “it’s hurting rather than helping,” she said. “We would consider that illegal dumping.”
“When it doubt, throw it out,” her authority states in the final line of its latest handout regarding “miscellaneous plastics.”
The authority accepts those plastics at the following locations: the authority’s main site, 253 Transfer Road, Bellefonte; between the Patton Township Fire Station at 2598 Green Tech Drive and the ClearWater Conservancy; at Burger King, 901 E. Bishop St., Bellefonte; at Hamilton Square Shopping Center, 244 W. Hamilton Ave., State College; at Snappy’s Convenience Store, 2892 Earlystown Road, Centre Hall; and at the Rush Township Building, 150 Richard St., Philipsburg.
Those locations can serve Blair County residents. But no one should take an 80-mile round trip to recycle a few pounds of plastic, she and Frederick said.
If a bin is full where you go, take your stuff to another designated location, Shafer advised.
One unexpected consequence of the IRC no longer accepting miscellaneous plastics at its Buckhorn composting facility is the presence of more junk along nearby roads, said Bob Chirdon, who lives on Wopsononock Mountain and periodically collects such waste with his wife.
Before the China shutoff, Chirdon recycled his miscellaneous plastics at the Buckhorn.
He’s disappointed that he can no longer take them there.
“Something needs to be done,” he said. “We have an obligation to take care of our planet.”