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McDonald's move jolts PS recycling but won't halt numerous ventures.

McDonald's Move Jolts PS Recycling But Won't Halt Numerous Ventures

Post-consumer plastic recycling will grow 17.6% annually, to 3.85 billion lb/yr by 2000, after 27% yearly growth during 1982-88, says a recent study by Leading Edge Reports in Cleveland. Polystyrene recycling (mostly webbing from thermoformed packaging) grew fastest of all--29% annually, to 185 million lb/yr in 1988, from 40 million lb in 1982, according to the study. But that's industrial PS waste, which doesn't appease environmentalists.

Robert Bennett of the University of Toledo this year included post-consumer PS recycling for the first time in his annual survey for the Plastics Recycling Foundation in Washington, D.C. Bennett says 20 million lb of post-consumer PS was recycled in 1989, but concedes that this figure "undoubtedly includes industrial scrap, too." Freedonia Group in Cleveland says only 5 million lb of post-consumer PS was recycled in 1989, but estimates that 60 million lb will be recycled by 1994. However much PS recycling there is, the post-consumer part may still be too little, too late to halt further consumer-driven phase-outs of PS foam packaging like the McDonald's sandwich box.

Certainly, one reason McDonald's Corp. of Oak Brook, Ill., evidently felt pressure to phase out the foam "clamshell" (see PT, Dec. '90, p.75) was that McDonald's pilot recycling efforts netted so little PS--about 10 lb/day (30-40 cu ft or about 1000 clamshells) from a good restaurant program, with some far lower. About 500 restaurants participated. The meager collection was also heavily contaminated with paper and food and costly to collect and process. And a substantial number of burger boxes are unlikely to be recycled once they leave the premises as carryout, as only a few curbside programs include PS (notably in Naperville, Ill., and Ft. Wayne, Ind.).

By most reports, recycling PS has been unprofitable so far, because the resin is inexpensive to begin with, and foam in particular is 93% inflated with air, which in turn inflates collection, shipping and processing costs. So despite multimillion-dollar investment by PS producers to show that PS can be recycled, it still isn't happening without big subsidies.

McDonald's is expected to adopt a replacement package consisting of a three-layer sandwich of waffle-patterned paper on either side of white, opaque LDPE, made by James River Corp., Richmond, Va. McDonald's is testing the Quilt-Rap package now, but says a decision hasn't been made. Mcdonald's and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), based in Washington, D.C., are still completing a 6-month joint study of ways to reduce waste from 11,400 McDonald's restaurants worldwide, which could result in more package redesigns, composting, or a switch to reusable shipping containers and tableware, says an EDF spokesman. (McDonald's, for that matter, hasn't stopped all use of PS. Breakfast packages, drink lids, hot-drink cups and salad containers may stay in PS because pancake syrup and salad dressings, for example, would be hard to serve in paper, says a spokesman for Amoco Foam Products, a McDonald's supplier.)

But abandoning the highly visible burger box is a psychological blow for PS, and it may cause school children and school districts to abandon foam trays, as well. It is also affecting the collection costs for PS waste from schools and other institutions--potentially larger sources than commercial fast-food outlets--because school pick-up was priced to take advantage of existing McDonald's pick-up routes and scheduling. Now McDonald's restaurant in the Northeast have supposedly halted foam recycling.



McDonald's switch stopped one new post-consumer PS recycling venture in its tracks, which would have been one of the first PS projects to operate without resin-company subsidy. North American Plastics Recycling Corp., Fort Edward, N.Y. (a new operating unit of North American Recycling Corp., a recycler of tires, paper, glass, metal, and wood) announced a $1.7-million wash/grind/densifying PS plant with about 9-million-lb/yr capacity, paid for by bond issues from two New York counties. North American had planned a wash system with components from Key Filters, in Webster, Mass.> thermal drying in a densifier> a single-screw double-vented 38:1 extruder and a Beringer pelletizer> and was setting up six collection sites in four states. PS was to have come from area schools, supported by the McDonald's collection infrastructure, says president Tom Tomaszek (for years the peripatetic spokesman for National Polystyrene Recycling Co.'s Plastics Again in Leominster, Mass.).

Now, with the economics of PS collection in doubt, North American is switching plans entirely and says it will collect and process LDPE and HDPE film, including post-consumer grocery sacks and merchandise bags, as well as agricultural and construction film, and is planning a 6.5-million-lb/yr recycling plant in Fort Edwards with a turnkey washing, grinding and pelletizing system from either a European supplier or John Brown Inc., in Providence, R.I., Tomaszek says.

He says they "won't turn away PS," but would sort, bale and ship it to the NPRC when its Philadelphia plant is operational. Tomaszek's plant will be fed by collection centers in Fort Edward, Port of Albany, N.Y., and Willimantic, Conn. Plans for sites and Staten Island, Philadelphia, and Barre, Mass., were halted after the McDonald's decision.



Still, PS recycling is making small but significant gains, including new commercial ventures without industry subsidy. A pilot project at SuperCycle, in St. Paul, Minn., is processing PS and aluminum from Northwest Airlines food service. SuperCycle (a unit of Recomp Inc. of Salt Lake City, a municipal composter and waste handler) started in July processing bagged recyclables off some 285 incoming flights/day at Northwest's Twin Cities hub. SuperCycle v.p. Nancy Healey says the program nets 2500 lb/month of PS and enough aluminum to pay for shredding, washing and drying the PS. SuperCycle washes and shreds the PS (using a small Amoco Foam washer/dryer).

PS then is sent in gaylords to Landfill Alternatives, a PS recycler in Elburn, Ill., for pelletizing. In late November, Plastics Inc., a unit of Newell Corp. in St. Paul, which makes PS food service items, injection molded the recycled material into sample plates and trays, which it is now showing to Northwest. Healey says she has a long list of companies wanting to join the program, "but we had to be sure it worked."

PS recycling is growing in Minnesota because of a state ordinance, phasing in after Jan. 1, that all packaging in the state must be recycled. "It will always be more expensive to recycle PS than to landfill it (currently about 4[/lb to landfill vs. 30[/lb to shred and wash) because it's so light," Healey says. She says when NPRC's Chicago facility starts up, possibly by February, processing costs could go as low as 15[/lb. "Then it becomes cheaper to recycle than to substitute a more expensive package," she says.

Landfill Alternatives, supposedly the only recycler in the country that processes only PS foam, profitably and without subsidy, plans to expand both dry PS processing and washing capacity. In February, wash capacity at Elburn will increase from 20,000 lb/month now "to at least 25,000, and possibly 50,000 lb, depending on cash available for equipment purchases," says treasurer James Frank. The 2-yr-old Elburn plant is operating at its 3-million-lb/yr capacity, processing PS foam from a combination of curbside collection, nearly 100 school programs, neighborhood drop-off, company-sponsored programs, and industrial scrap.

The company was planning a second 3-million-lb/yr PS foam recycling plant in Independence, Mo., sometime in 1991 with 1-million-lb/yr washing capacity, four times bigger than Elburn. But McDonald's decision has made supply and collection uncertain, so Landfill Alternatives is reviewing its plan and looking at ways to increase school collection programs, says co-owner William Roberts. A new Independence plant would cost $600,000, possibly with support from PS manufacturers. It would also include a pelletizer (the company now makes only granules and tolls out pelletizing on demand). If plans for Independence fall through, the company says Atlanta and Minneapolis are possible alternatives.



NPRC, Licolnshire, Ill., started up the largest PS recycling plant in the country last month in Corona, Calif., the first of four planned plants, intended to have capacity to wash, grind and pelletize 13 million lb/yr of post-consumer PS. The plant will be owned by NPRC and managed by Talco Recycling Inc., a sister company of Talco Plastics Inc. of Whittier, Calif., an industrial plastics recycler. Post-consumer PS will come from southern California schools, hospitals and offices, NPRC says. Talco and Amoco Foam previously ran a six-month collection test with 17 Los Angeles-area schools, reprocessing 1.5 million lunch trays (about 45,000 lb).

The Corona plant started processing dry material in November, and got its compounding extruder in December. NPRC has ordered four twin-screw compounding extruders from Werner & Pfleiderer Corp. of Ramsey, N.J., for the four plants, designed in conjunction with Law Environmental Services of Atlanta. Werner & Pfleiderer business manager Michael Scudese says the NPRC model resembles the company's two-stage Kombiplast machine (see PT, Nov. '90, p. 95). A long twin-screw compounds, dewaters, and mixes, allowing colors, fillers and modifiers to be added. It the feeds into a short single-screw stage (proprietary for the NPRC models) which builds pressure to feed the die and cutter, freeing the twin-screw stage to do the dewatering. W&P sales director Asmuth Kahns says the model is "very specific for PS foam waste, which is treated with a lot of wash water and acts like a sponge. The challenge is to get the water out. It wasn't easy to accomplish.

NPRC doen't collect the PS> it's delivered at shipper's expense, though NPRC pays up to 5[/lb depending on quality. NPRC, which plans three more identical plants in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, will open the Chicago plant in February. The Philadelphia site will follow.

Plastics Again, which doesn't have the twin-screw extruder, dewaters after washing with a press from Ketema Process Equipment, in San Diego, between centrifuge and thermal drying stages. Plastics Again recently installed a new 450-mm press, capable of 6 tons/day, to replace a 300-mm lab model.



Another recent PS collection system has started processing clean waste, without washing. Foam cup producer Dart Container Co., in Mason, Mich., recently upgraded three in-plant PS scrap extruding facilities to accommodate public drop-off of PS. Dart plants in Campbellford, Ontario> Leola, PA.> and Plant City Fla., opened in September to public drop-off, following a successful one-year program in its Mason plant. The four programs have combined capacity of 10 million lb/yr, Dart says. Dart bought a new extruded for Mason, refurbished extruders at the other locations, and installed grinders, conveyors and silos> no new personnel was added. Clean waste PS is delivered from state and local government offices, including packaging foam from General Motors Corp., egg and meat trays from a Pennsylvania supermarket, and public drop-off.

Now a pilot project to wash ad dry food-contaminated post-consumer foam is in place in Mason, and Dart is offering scholl-district collection to 40 southern Michigan counties, if the counties establish a single pick-up site--so far 20 have. Dart engineer Fred Forrester says the company still needs to "invent its own extruder," and will dewater thermally, not with an extruder, like NPRC.

Dart's seven other domestic cup plants, which have no in-plant scrap processing capabilities, don't plan to add them. Up to a few months ago, some sent scrap to landfills, but now all ship to recyclers and some may soon get Dart's own densifiers. The densifiers, built in-house, are "souped up compactors," a hydraulically driven ram in a cylinder, which reduces 40 lb of foam cups to a 15 x 15-in. block, Forrester says. Densifiers will be available for lease, to reduce Ps shipping costs, he says. A well-packed trailer can hold only 3300 lb of PS foam, whereas that some load densified fits on a big pick-up truck--a 12:1 reduction in bulk, says Lee Messer, plant manager of Amoco Foam's Polystyrene REcycling Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Another new "clean" PS recycling program was starged by Tuscarora Plastics Inc., New Brighton, Pa., reportedly the largest molder of expanded PS shapes in the U.S. Tuscarora's pilot program in three communities will recycle commercial packaging foam used to ship televisions, computers and other electronics back into packing foam. Tuscarora will collect foam from retail stores in Beaver Valley, PA.> Saginaw, Mich.> and Conyers, Ga. By late 1991, Tuscarora says it plans to collect from up to 1000 retailers near its 18 plants nationwide. Tuscarora is also doing developmental work on returnable/reusable shipping systems, incorporating foam, says v.p. of technology James Brakebill.

Plastics Again has also just set up a proprietary densification system for EPS packaging waste, which is far lighter than food-service PS wate--0.9 lb/cu ft vs. 3-4 pcf for food-service collection (which may also include higher-density PS cutlery, salad packs, lids and cups.)



Eastman Chemical Products, inc., Kingsport, Tenn., plans to spend over $1 million on a pilot methanolysis plant, which shoulde be running in February, to develop an economical process for recycling PET soda bottles back into food-grade PET. Eastman has used methanolysis for 15 years to process its own PET photographic film scrap> now the technology and process are being improved for post-consumer PET, says marketing manager for polyester recycling business Noel Malone. Eastman wants a "more efficient" chemical process so that recycled PET can compete with virgin. Eastman will decide by April of May whether to proceed with a commercial plant, he says. (see Industry Newsfocus section of rmore on food-grade PET recycle.)
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Title Annotation:polystyrene
Author:Schut, Jan H.
Publication:Plastics Technology
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:News from Interplas.
Next Article:Regulatory outlook 1991: policing "recycle" claims.

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