INSIGHT: US needs rapid recycling growth to meet industry pledges

Author: Al Greenwood

2021/06/17

HOUSTON (ICIS)--The US will need to expand its recycling capacity at a compounded annual growth rate of nearly 40% if it is to meet goals to produce plastic packaging containing 25% post-consumer resins (PCR) by 2025, an analyst with ICIS said.

The 25% content goal has been adopted voluntarily by several brand-owners as well as by the state of California, said Paula Leardini, senior analyst, plastics recycling, the Americas for ICIS. She made her comments during an ICIS webinar.

California was the first state to impose a mandate that required beverage containers to be composed of increasing amounts of recycled plastics. Since then, the number of proposed and adopted recycling regulations has been growing on a state and national level, Leardini said.

The resulting pledges will increase demand for post-consumer resins, which will require more recycling capacity.

One way to meet expected demand is to make packaging easier to recycle, said Jon Stephens, president of Natura PCR, part of Avangard Innovative. He was another speaker at the ICIS webinar. His company runs a plastic recycling plant.

Stephens noted that companies produce thousands of performance grades of virgin polyethylene (PE), making recyclers' jobs harder. "That essentially comes comingled in a bale to us, and we have to just figure out how to homogenise that and make it a clean PCR that has a consistent performance."

Policy makers can do their part by making it easier for consumers to recycle plastic.

In the US, 40m people do not have easy access to recycling, said Sarah Dearman, vice president of circular ventures for The Recycling Partnership, a non-profit group.

Policies should be adopted on a national level instead of a state level.

State policymaking could result in a fragmented patchwork of regulations across the US, Dearman said. Companies could face the difficult and expensive prospect of complying with a myriad of regulations among the nation's 50 states. Federal regulations would impose uniform policies across the country.

Some specific policies that could encourage more recycling include penalties and landfill fees, said Allison Lin, vice president, procurement and sustainability, for Westfall Technik, a plastic processor.

Under bottle-return programmes, consumers could recover deposits by collecting discarded plastic containers, Lin said.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies could provide more incentives to recover waste plastic. Under EPR, producers of plastics are largely responsible for how their material is handled after it is used by consumers.

Such policies already exist for products such as electronic waste, paints and pharmaceuticals. A number of states are considering their expansion for plastic packaging, Leardini said.

In addition to policies, the US needs infrastructure that can process more plastic waste.

Stephens said that some municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) are outdated. "They don't have the bunker space. They have to add equipment. They have to add investment."

Dearman estimates that in the next five years, the US needs to invest $17bn, a figure that covers education as well as infrastructure.

Longer term, chemical recycling could help close the gap between current recycling capacity and the expected growth in demand for recycled plastics.

In chemical recycling, polymers are broken down into feedstock that can be used to make plastics with properties nearly identical to virgin material. It contrasts with mechanical recycling, in which waste plastic is re-processed without breaking down the polymer.

Chemical recycling can complement mechanical recycling  in terms of scale and long-term prospects, Leardini said.

"Chemical recycling can overcome some of the limitations of mechanical recycling, especially when we talk about the feedstock type," she said. Some challenging feedstocks for mechanical recyclers include mixed plastics, film and flexible packaging.

Chemical recycling also can overcome food-contact restrictions that confound mechanical recycling.

Mechanically recycled plastic can still be used for food-grade packaging, Leardini said. But chemical recycled material would have an easier time meeting the standards for such applications.

ICIS expects it could take 5-10 years for chemical recycling to reach industrial scale, Leardini said.

Also, the real environmental impact of chemical recycling is unclear and needs to be pinned down.

Chemical recycling also needs to resolve some regulatory uncertainty. Proposed federal legislation would not consider chemically recycled material as being recycled.

That contrasts with state legislation, which would consider it as recycled material.

By Al Greenwood