For the second straight year, post-consumer high density polyethylene recycling has remained stagnant.
The North American recycling rate for HDPE remained at 29.9 percent in 2011 with the amount of pounds recycled dropping slightly from 984.1 million pounds in 2010 to 973.9 million, according to the post-consumer plastics bottle recycling report released today by the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
2011 marks the second time that HDPE recycling volume has declined since 2002. There was a decline of 7.5 million pounds between 2006 and 2007.
The HDPE recycling rate had risen from 26 percent in 2007 to 29.9 in 2010. However, the increase in the recycling rate in 2010 was miniscule — just 0.30 percent, meaning that the rate has been stagnant now for three years.
Most of the increase in the recycling rate since 2007 can be attributed to lower virgin resin sales.
“The recycling rate is higher, but it obscures the problem — which is that sales pounds of HDPE peaked in 2006 and 2007,” said Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of HDPE recycler Envision Plastics in an Oct. 3 presentation at a Resin Outlook conference in Toronto sponsored by Canadian Plastics magazine.
“Unfortunately, the [HDPE] recycling rate is going to stay where it is unless some new idea pushes recycling forward,” said Scott Saunders, general manager of KW Plastics Recycling in Troy, Ala., in a phone interview with Plastics News.
“We need a shot to the system, but I don’t see anything out there, or any new major programs coming on,” he said. “It’s disappointing that we can’t push that recycling rate up closer to 50 percent.
“As an industry, we have the processing capacity to recycle more HDPE, but we’re limited by what we can take in,” Saunders said. “We can’t grow without more materials. At KW, our ability to process is larger than the amount of material we can take in.”
Because of stagnant virgin resin sales, the potential amount of HDPE that can be recycled is not increasing. Virgin HDPE sales dipped nearly 9 percent in 2008. There was a slight uptick in 2009 to 3.365 billion pounds, but virgin HDPE sales have declined again the past two years — first to 3.286 billion pounds in 2010 and then to 3.26 billion pounds in 2011.
Part of that decline can be traced to lightweighting.
“Many HDPE bottle applications are using product concentrates, which means an increasing number of smaller bottles — or fewer bottles made for the total number of uses” for products such as laundry detergent, said the report.
Thus, there are fewer pounds of HDPE bottles to be recycled. “The advent of single-stream recycling in 2009 gave it [collection] a bump, but supply is shrinking,” said Ettefagh in her presentation. “The supply of curbside collected scrap is stagnant — inelastic.”
That shrinking supply of HDPE is compounded by poorer yields of material from bales.
“The quality of feedstock is diminishing partly due to bad single-stream programs and because the export market is not as concerned about quality,” she said in Toronto.
The report agreed. “The quality of available post-consumer bottle material fell slightly for HDPE,” noting that yields dropped from 82 percent in 2010 to 79.5 percent in 2011.
One potential way to increase the amount of HDPE recycled would be if cities and municipalities took a more aggressive approach to recycling plastic material, Saunders said.
“We need more cities to be more be more aggressive in recycling more plastic materials,” Saunders said.
“Not enough cities understand that plastics recycling can be at least be revenue-neutral — and also profitable,” he said. “We have to help cities overcome their budgetary concerns and highlight plastic recycling programs in the U.S. that are profitable or at least revenue-neutral.”
Although there is more discussion of extended producer responsibility and its potential to increase the amount of materials collected, Saunders does not think that will occur in the short-term.
“I don’t think it’s a reality in today’s political environment,” he said.
The amount of HDPE processed by reclaimers in the U.S. rose by almost one-third in 2011 to 843 million pounds with the six largest HDPE processing 667 million pounds — or 79 percent of the total. The remaining 20 HDPE processors recycled just 176 million pounds.
Even though export markets purchased 26 percent less resin in 2011, U.S. companies imported twice as much HDPE in bales — 51 million — as they did in 2010.
Non-food bottles, at 38 percent, and pipe, at 32 percent, accounted for 70 percent of the end-use markets for recycled HDPE.
Total industry capacity, estimated at 1.07 billion pounds, is virtually identical to 2010 and essentially unchanged since 2005 when capacity stood at 1.1 billion pounds. Capacity utilization, at 80 percent, remained virtually the same as in 2010, according to the report.
The challenging market conditions and price environment discourage future investments, said Ettefagh.
A recycling plant that produces 3 tons of resin per hour and is located in the most efficient site requires a capital investment of more than $13.3 million — not including overhead, freight, purchasing or material costs, Ettefagh said in her slide presentation.
Ettefagh told the resin outlook conference that the next potential target area for plastic recyclers could be polypropylene as it is produced in large volumes, 17 billion pounds annually, in North America, and is a safe plastic environmentally.
“Today, there is very little post-consumer recovery of polypropylene,” she said. The all-bottle report estimated that 43.8 million pounds of post-consumer PP was collected and recycled in 2011 compared to 35.4 million in 2010.
“But there is 2 billion pounds available in easy-to-recycle short-lived gizmos,” Ettefagh said. “What’s more prices have doubled in two years and will likely stay higher, so recycling [of polypropylene] will be profitable.”
Mike Verespej is a reporter for Plastics News, a sister publication of Waste & Recycling News.