7 Misconceptions About Plastic and Plastic Recycling

Whenever you input “plastics recycling” into an internet search engine, one of the top three results (after ads) will be the article “Seven Misconceptions About Plastic and Plastic Recycling” from the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California.  This blog article is well written, but its content is locally driven and not particularly accurate across a broader cross section of the country, or even California for that matter.  Since recycling programs and their effectiveness vary significantly across the country, these “misconceptions” may or may not fit your particular situation. 

Because their blog article comes up consistently high in internet search results, we felt that we should provide our perspective, as plastics recyclers with national scope, to the issues addressed in the blog article.

–      Misconception #1: “Plastics that go into a curbside recycling bin get recycled.  Not necessarily.”, says the Ecology Center.  This statement is not accurate.  Provided that we put the proper plastics in our recycling bins, as requested by our municipal waste authority, they will all be recycled.  In Berkeley, they ask for #1 PET bottles and #2 HDPE bottles only.  These plastics are in high demand and will be recycled back into plastics products.

The Ecology Center states that “In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers from Berkeley are being made into containers again…”.  This is not an accurate statement.  We buy the #2 HDPE material from Berkeley (and many other California communities) and most of it is converted back into plastic bottles by Graham Packaging, Liquid Container, Consolidated Container, Clorox, Polytainer, Microdyne and other molders on the West coast.  It is true that there are other end markets for this material and some of it may become plastic drainage pipe, plastic lumber or other products, but it certainly does not wind up in landfills.

–      Misconception #2: “Curbside collection will reduce the amount of plastic landfilled.  Not necessarily.”, says the Ecology Center.  This doesn’t make sense to us.  Our plant in Chino, California saved 344,626,607 plastic bottles from being landfilled in 2010 alone and we are not the only recycler on the West coast.

The Ecology Center argues that more recycling will lead to more demand for plastics products.  This is not how demand for consumer products is created; however, demand for recycled plastics currently exceeds supply of curbside collected plastics, so our attitude is, bring it on!  We’ll recycle it!

–      Misconception #3:A chasing arrows symbol means that a plastic container is recyclable.  The arrows are meaningless.”, says the Ecology Center.  We agree.  The chasing arrows identification system does not mean that a plastic container is recyclable, nor necessarily recycled.  This system is currently being overhauled by ASTM and should be replaced in the near future.

–      Misconception #4: “Plastic resins are made from non-renewable natural resources that could be used for a variety of other applications or conserved.”, says the Ecology Center.  We agree.  Since plastic packaging and products are not going to go away, what better argument could there be for recycling plastics back into useful products.

–      Misconception #5: “Plastics recyclers pay to promote plastics’ recyclability.  No; virgin producers pay for the bulk of these ads.”, says the Ecology Center.  This may be true, however, it would be nice to see some ads regarding the facts of plastics recycling.  There haven’t been any in circulation in years.

–      Misconception #6: “Using plastic containers conserves energy.  When the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers…”, says the Ecology Center.  This is nonsense.  They definitely need to make a trip to a glass container producing plant.  The single largest cost to making glass is energy, not raw materials and its cost dwarfs what it costs to make plastic.  This has been well documented elsewhere.   Less energy is used to make plastic and far less energy is used to transport plastic products.  This is not even debatable.

–      Misconception #7: “Our choice is limited to recycling or wasting. Source reduction is preferable for many types of plastic and isn’t difficult.  Opportunities include using refillable containers, buying in bulk, buying things that don’t need much packaging, and buying things in recyclable and recycled packages.”, says the Ecology Center.  We agree wholeheartedly.  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

The Ecology Center goes on to make some other points, such as, “Plastic container producers do not use any recycled plastic in their packaging…”.  This is not true.  California has a recycled content mandate for non-food plastic containers that all molders must adhere to.  They are audited annually for compliance and will be fined if they are found to have less than 25% recycled content in their containers.

They go on to say that “Plastics recycling costs much and does little to achieve recycling goals.”  That may have been true in the early stages of establishing recycling programs.  If setup correctly and efficiently, plastics recycling is economically viable and provides a profitable revenue stream to waste haulers and municipalities alike.  It also is a job creator, even in these difficult economic times.  Plastics recycling creates 6 jobs to every landfill job.

While we agree with many of the messages the Ecology Center is making in their blog article, we need to be clear that plastics recycling is effective and, if anything, needs to be expanded in order to conserve natural resources, reduce energy consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create new jobs.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.

Bioresins Have a Lower Carbon Footprint and Are Recyclable. Great Idea, IF …

Recycling is still the emphasis while using any plastics. Why would it not be? Let’s understand 3 types of plastics that have either bio or degradable in their names:

  • Oxy-degradable: these resins will break down on exposure to oxygen over the long-term. Useful for short-term applications for containers or films, but can cause serious problems in the recycling industry if they get integrated into the plastics that are going back into the resin production cycle.
  • Bio-degradable: these resins break down organically, not necessarily from exposure to air, but that does help promote the degradation. Again, this resin is useful for short term applications for containers or films, but can cause serious problems in the recycling industry if they get integrated into the plastics that are going back into the resin production cycle.
  • Bioresins – these resins use organic or plant material to produce the polymers, instead of fossil-fuel sources. They will not degrade, just as fossil fuel based resins won’t, but they replicate several of the properties of fossil fuel resins of strength and durability. And they are recyclable. Another important aspect is the reduction in Carbon Footprint while producing this resin. Just like recycled HDPE uses less energy to produce the product (see https://envisionplastics.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/what-takes-less-energy-to-produce-the-more-times-you-reuse-it/), a bioresin starts off with a lower carbon foot print than a virgin fossil-fuel based resin.  Also bioresins are better than carbon neutral because the plant material (sugarcane, corn, sugarbeets, etc.) actually “sequesters” CO2 and gives off Oxygen in the process of photosynthesis.   While this is an exciting new area of using renewable feedstocks to produce a plastic resin, the total impact of producing a bioresin has yet to be determined.  What is the environmental impact of water and fertilizer usage on a huge commercial-scale?  What will be the impact on food supply and food prices?  What will be the land use impact of dedicating more and more land for production of renewable energy and energy by-products, such as plastics?  These are issues that will need to be identified and addressed in order for a comprehensive comparison to fossil-fuel based plastic resins to be accurate.

In our zeal to find other sources for our resins, the distinction between the different kinds of bio and degradable resins needs to be clear, so that the consumer knows the difference and disposes of the plastic products to the right stream.

Bioresins are welcome in the recycling stream, degradables are not.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.

Bio-degradable/Oxy-degradable Plastics – Great Idea, But the Implementation Still Needs Work

What happens when an idea is actually revolutionary, but it is fighting the wrong battle and gets rushed into implementation without understanding the consequences?

What are Bio-degradeable/Oxy-degradeable Plastics?

Bio-degradeables are polymers that can degrade under a variety of conditions depending upon the additive or chemical composition of the the polymer.  There are two types of degradeable materials that are being marketed today: oxy or oxo-degradeables and anaerobic degradeables.   Oxy-degradeables have metal salt additives that allow them to decompose over time when left outdoors or composted, but will not decompose in a landfill.  Anerobic degradeables have a chemical additive in the plastic that allows it to degrade in a microbe rich environment, like a landfill, but no one is quite sure of the environmental impact of the residual chemicals that were added to the plastic.  Similarly, both resin types, when tested in their appropriate environments to degrade, take too long to degrade to be truly useful in commercial composting or landfilling applications.

Need to be labeled clearly

If the packaging industry still insists on providing products made with these types of resins, then the labeling has to be clear, such that these resins don’t get mixed in with 100% or previously recycled resins. Contrary to some claims by bio/oxy-degradeable resin suppliers, these resins cannot be mixed in with non-degradable resins and still retain the base resin’s properties when processed as Post Consumer Resins (PCR). Without clear labeling, this creates significant challenges for waste stream processors for sorting and for plastics reclaimers in keeping these resins out of the recycling stream.

More effective to have purity of resins for plastics recycling

Container producers and other users of PCR mixing with virgin resins use less energy and in some applications less colorant (such as when using Envision’s PRISMA™, custom color sorted PCR), because the PCR has already expended that initial energy and mixed in the necessary colorant. With the potential of non-labeled or improperly labeled bio-degradable resins being in the mix, the end product is contaminated with the bio-degradable properties, producing product that will not meet the resin property standards needed by the end user. If this becomes predominant, users of PCR may refuse the PCR product and use only virgin resins, resulting in more resins going to the landfill and more energy used to produce the virgin resins, rather than fulfilling a better use of PCRs in the recycling stream.

Let’s look at the potential quality issues IF bio-degradable plastics contaminate the PCR stream. Imagine how durable goods would be impacted. A common use of PET resins is for clothing and carpet. If the contaminated PET degrades, as it is supposed to do, you may experience some embarrassment at a party if your recycled dress starts disintegrating. For HDPE, common uses are for toys, lumber and lawn furniture. Over a period of time, these articles may lose structural integrity in the sun as the bio-degradable plastic portion starts doing its expected thing.

At this time, there is no need for concern about the quality of PCR, but it could happen if the bio-degradable plastics contaminate the PCR stream.

More stringent regulation is needed of bio/oxy-degradable resins to be included as part of a total plastics sustainability strategy. Until then, these resins must be clearly marked to avoid contaminating the PCR life cycle.

Our Position

The Litter Issue

Bio /oxy-degradeable plastics have a place in packaging or products where litter could be an issue.  How big the litter issue is depends upon your perspective.  In the U.S., litter is mostly accidental and not a method of primary disposal.  This is not necessarily true elsewhere in the world.  The great Pacific garbage patch is primarily caused by other countries dumping their trash in the sea and ocean going vessels doing the same.  Could bio /oxy-degradeables help here?  It certainly seems so, but determining what should be bio / oxy-degradeable would still be debatable.

Bio / Oxy-degradable Plastics Should Not Be Used in Bottle Applications

96% of all plastic bottles produced in North America are either PET (#1) or HDPE (#2).  These are the two most recycled plastics on the planet and the mainstay of curbside collection and deposit / return systems.  The introduction of bio / oxy-degradeable plastics into this stream will have disastrous effects on the quality of recycled resins produced from these feedstocks.  It is already a challenge for recyclers to maintain the quality of recycled resins through traditional methods without introducing materials that will degrade polymer performance by its use.  We need a persistent effort to encourage more recycling of plastics, not introduce materials that will degrade performance of plastics that are already being recycled.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.

Why Can Europe Burn Its Waste Effectively and The US Can’t?

For plastics recycling, European methods provide a larger supply of plastics going back into the recycling loop. As explained in greater detail below, their methods allow them to recycle 61% of the waste, burn 34% for energy and heat, 4% goes to landfill, with the remaining 1% (chemicals, paints and some electronic equipment) going to special disposal places. The 34% waste burned is burned cleaner and provides greater heat than incineration methods used in the US.

There are 3 key reasons Europe can be this effective and the US can’t:

1.    Necessity

2.    Policy

3.    Technology

These reasons drive innovation that has provided cost effective and energy saving solutions to several countries in Europe, with acceptance by the surrounding communities. In fact, in several cases, the residents wanted the facility near them, so that they could directly benefit from heat generated by the plants and enjoy lower electricity costs, thereby increasing their home value.

The information provided in this blog article comes mainly from an article written by Elisabeth Rosenthal of the NY Times, titled “Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags”. It was published April 12, 2010 and can be found in its entirety at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/science/earth/13trash.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&adxnnlx=1285524145-vAhP1cH6SJVta52%20CWT67A

Necessity

Europe has limited space in a densely populated area. By definition, they can’t afford to take up valuable real estate on waste materials that will never be used again. In addition, each new landfill requires significant capital to ensure no toxic elements leak out of the area. In Europe also, you can drop your recycling off for free, but have to pay for your garbage to be incinerated, clearly an incentive to recycle as much as possible.

In the United States, with all the open land available, the motivation is not as strong. Another aspect, most trash removal is done by private enterprises, which have less ability to offer incentives and still be profitable for them. Most of the trash is generated in densely populated areas of the United States and even though it can be very expensive, most trash is hauled to remote areas. This transport is mainly due to the threat of lawsuits by property owners not wanting landfills close to their residence and places of business.

Policy

Europe has embraced policies promoting cleaner emissions, most coming from the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also have much more stringent recycling policies, with spot inspections of waste facilities with the threat of heavy fines if recyclable materials are found in the mix. By pulling out recyclable materials, these materials go back into the production cycle, utilizing less energy to be used again. In some of the materials, its takes 70% less energy to produce recycled materials than the energy it takes to produce virgin materials.

In the United States, most recycling policies are done at the local or state level (see our previous post on NC Plastic Bottle Ban, https://envisionplastics.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/3-reasons-why-nc%E2%80%99s-2009-ban-on-plastic-bottles-to-the-landfill-is-crucial-for-business-success/). With no federal mandate, recycling efforts may not pay for themselves, through private enterprise. Another factor is the fear with no recycling mandates, those efforts would provide an excuse not to recycle, if we can easily get rid of our waste, through incineration.

Technology

The technology developed in Europe, while expensive has proven to reduce emissions to 10-20% of the level currently mandated by European standards. In addition, this technology produces a higher level of energy, then previous incinerator technologies and this technology can also share heat with nearby residential and commercial facilities providing more than just electricity. Designs have been promoted to reduce the visibility of the facilities as well as provide esthetic appeal. In some cases, passersby would not even know there was a waste-to-energy facility there.

In the US, we are still stuck with older technology that is both cost prohibitive to update or replace and pollutes more. With it easier (and cheaper in most cases) to just find a new landfill, the motivation is not there to think long term and provide these new channels to dispose of our wastes.

In general, mandating more recycling and producing energy from non-recyclable waste would seem to be a non-brainer, but until policies in the US change to reflect that push, burning waste for energy in the US will not be a top priority nor cost effective.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.


Did We Improve Our Plastic Recycling Rates in 2009 From 2008?

Yes and no. Continuing our blog thread on recycling rates, the 2009 report was recently published (http://www.plasticsrecycling.org/images/stories/doc/2009usnatpostconsplasticbottrecycreport.pdf). Highlights and insight are provided below. 

The US improved in the following areas:

  • The total pounds of plastic bottles recycled reached a record high 2,456 million pounds.
  • The total plastic bottle recycling rate was 27.8%, up from 27.0% in 2008.
  • The total pounds of plastic bottles collected increased by 46 million pounds for 2009 over 2008.
  • The annual increase in pounds of plastic bottles recycled was 1.9%.
  • The 20 year compounded annual growth rate for plastic bottle recycling was 9.4%.
  • HDPE bottles collected rose by 44.9 million pounds to 981.6 million pounds.
  • The HDPE bottle recycling rate rose to 29.2% in 2009 from 29.0% in 2008 with an increase in amount collected for recycling and increase in resin used for bottles.
  • Exports of US-collected HDPE bottle material increased to 234 million pounds, 23.8% of domestically collected material with approximately 6/7’s of the exports leaving North America.
  • Polypropylene bottle recycling totaled 27.0 million pounds, an increase of 27% over 2008 with 48% of the total processed domestically as deliberate PP material, as opposed to mixed material flake.

Areas the US could have done better:

  • PET bottles collected decreased by 7 million pounds for a total of 1,444 million pounds.
  • Imports of postconsumer HDPE to the United States decreased by 72% to 40 million pounds, which with increased exports resulted in decreased production and capacity utilization of USA reclamation plants.

In general, it was a positive year for plastics recycling with a new twist on some of the issues:

  • Pricing recovered somewhat, still lower than 2006/2007 levels, but higher than and more stable than 2008
  • Resin use increased as more users required recycled content in their products, but still not to 2006/2007 levels
  • Recycling programs expanded the variety of plastics accepted, increasing the amount collected, but also creating more contaminated bales with less yields for the particular plastic recyclers
  • With HDPE recycling considerably higher, importing was less of an issue and in fact reduced significantly, but it also sent more HDPE offshore as the need became more competitive

As we look to 2010 results, we hope that the trajectories continue in the positive direction for all of these aspects.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.