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Opportunities take shape in recycling.

Opportunities Take Shape in Recycling

Recycling of plastic, both from post-consumer waste and industrial scrap, is rapidly shaping up to be both a viable--and competitive--business in the 1990s. Rising landfill costs are causing states to include plastics in curbside collection programs, while consumer pressure is also causing some packaging companies to mandate use of recycled material in their containers. And several major resin suppliers have entered into some form of recycling activity, promising new developments in reclamation technology and opening up of new markets.

The Center for Plastics Recycling Research (CPRR) of Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J., has defined four basic components of any plastics recycling system: 1) collection, 2) sortation and densification, 3) reclamation, and 4) end-use markets. Each of these components will require considerable development in this decade for recycling to fulfill its commercial promise. As an infrastructure for recycling becomes better defined, both new opportunities and new risks will present themselves for plastics recyclers.

Clearly, three areas of opportunity are opening up for plastics processors in connection with recycling: 1) shredding, washing, separating and repelletizing waste materials; 2) purchasing recycled plastics as a lower-cost raw material; and 3) formulating proprietary compounds of filled, reinforced, impact-modified and flame-retardant plastics based on reclaimed resins. That much is clear, but almost everything else about recycling remains far from certain.

Based on interviews with leading recyclers, resin suppliers, and recycling organizations, this article examines some of the key issues that remain unresolved or whose resolution is just starting to emerge from the mist of speculation:

* For how long will demand for recycled plastics outstrip available supply by what recyclers say is a margin of 2:1? With all the new curbside recycling programs coming on stream, will there be a glut of recycled plastic instead? (By 1991, 16 million U.S. households, or 20% of the population, will be involved in curbside collection of recyclable waste, according to the Council on Plastics Packaging and the Environment, Washington, D.C.)

* Who will control this new stream of raw material--existing resin producers, who have been grabbing many of the headlines lately, or independent recyclers?

* Which plastics will be most desirable to recycle? Will PVC be one of them?

* How much of these plastics are likely to be recycled in the foreseeable future?

* Will recycled material be sold at a steep discount off virgin prices--or perhaps at no discount at all? Is there any profit in it, or will there be in the foreseeable future?

* Will engineering resins and durable goods recycling get off the ground?

* Will recycled plastics ever be acceptable for food packaging? (In one case, they are already.)

* How much opportunity is there in commingled or mixed-waste recycling, as opposed to separated and purified plastic reclaim?


One major challenge for recycling during the next decade will be adequate collection capabilities. According to Peter Mechler, v.p. of wTe Recycling/Star, (formerly Star Plastics), Albany, N.Y., 1990 will be a critical year for curbside recycling programs. He predicts that hundreds of MRF's (materials recovery facilities) will come into being by 1992. These should help rectify the inability of supply to meet demand for recycled materials, which has been normal to date.

Dennis Sabourin, v.p. of Wellman, Inc., Shrewsbury, N.J., agrees. Sabourin sees the lack of adequate collection and sortation infrastructures as holding back further expansion of recycling. To help ensure its own growth, Wellman has formed "strategic partnerships"--in collection, with Browning-Ferris Industries, Inc., Houston, one of the nation's largest waste haulers; and in sortation, with New England CRInc., N. Billerica, Mass., a materials-recovery firm active in plastics recycling (see PT, June '88, p. 42; June '89, p. 107).

Other major recyclers are following the same route. Du Pont Co., Wilmington, Del., recently entered into a partnership, called the Plastic Recycling Alliance, teaming up with trash hauler Waste Management Inc., Oak Brook, Ill., for a series of recycling facilities (PT, March '90, p. 119). Under the agreement, Waste Management will collect waste and separate the plastics, which will be densified and shipped in bales to the reclaiming facility. There the bottles will be separated into HDPE and PET streams, shredded, washed, and separated into generic components. Reclaim will then be shipped to Du Pont for further post-treatment. Robert Weis, Du Pont's manager of plastics waste solutions, predicts that the bottleneck in collection will ease as communities implement curbside collection.

Union Carbide Chemicals and Plastics Co. Inc., Danbury, Conn., which recently announced plans to build a recycling facility in New Jersey to handle both film and bottles, expects to reach far beyond New Jersey borders to satisfy its raw-material requirements. Ted Clark, Union Carbide's recycling business manager, regards collection as a "very substantial challenge." One strategy of the company is to try to influence New Jersey municipalities to include plastics in their recycling programs. Under that state's recycling law, plastics are just one of several material types that can be chosen for curbside collection (see PT, March '90, p. 119).

Curbside is just one of several approaches to collection. The National Polystyrene Recycling Co. (NPRC), has targeted three major users of PS as sources of raw material: school cafeterias, industrial and municipal cafeterias, and fast-food restaurants.

For PVC, OxyChem, Berwyn, Pa., has instituted a buy-back program through which it will purchase PVC scrap from anybody with a supply. William Carroll, OxyChem's director of technology, is pinning hopes on new electromagnetic separation systems that will automatically identify PVC bottles in the waste stream, allowing PVC to be included in curbside collection. Cleveland-based BFGoodrich also supports sortation R&D. It has purchased a unit from Asoma in Austin, Texas, that is based on x-ray fluorescence technology, and is evaluating it in a municipal collection operation.

James McLellan, director of waste management chemicals for Amoco Chemicals Corp., Chicago, feels that spreading the costs of collection and recycling may be necessary to make plastics recycling cost-effective. Amoco is setting up a number of collection and recycling programs for its Foam Products Group. In each case, it is trying to include PS with other resins and recyclable materials. "Food service has PS, but it also has corrugated paper, glass, tin, and aluminum in the waste stream," notes McLellan. "If they are going to source those materials and send them down to a recycling center, they can share transportation costs with plastic items. By pushing PS, we can enhance the whole recycling infrastructure." McLellan envisions that the most efficient recycling requires the ability to handle a variety of materials.

One recycler that accepts mixed bottle bales is M.A. Industries' Polymers Div., Peachtree City, Ga. That company got its start by recycling PP from car battery cases, and has since expanded to recycling PET and HDPE. Of curbside collection programs, technical director Roger D. Geyer says, "The easiest way to get the public involved is to collect all of their bottles together, have them baled, and sell them to us to be separated and reclaimed. If a community is just getting started, they are more comfortable if they don't have to know what plastic is what."


M.A. Industries has technology for sorting, separating, cleaning, re-separating, and extruding clean, homogeneous resin. The cleaning and separating process, which Geyer says is 80% automated and 20% manual, was developed initially to separate battery cases. Sortation is costly, says Geyer, "probably equal to the cost of the rest of the cleanup system."

Effective automated sortation systems should become much more widely available in the next few years. wTe Corp., Bedford, Mass., is one company involved in a number of development projects in sortation of plastics. According to Dr. Bruce Bond, director of marketing, "If we hold to just plastics, we want to include all plastics, so that our feedstock increases. We rely on technology to do the separation and produce as highly pure product as we can so that converters and molders can work it into their stream."

In one project, wTe and Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich., have jointly developed an automatic separation system for plastics at wTe's plastics processing lab in Benecia, Calif. That process uses sink/float technology as well as other methods to separate plastics. wTe planned to begin employing the technology in this first quarter at one of its existing MRF's in Akron, Ohio. A second focus of the company is developing technology to separate and clean PS foam, potentially both extruded PS and EPS.

wTe Corp. just last month acquired Star Plastics of Albany, N.Y., a recycler of PET and HDPE, and plans to upgrade the facility with technology developed at its Benecia R&D facility. The newly acquired company will operate under the name wTe Recycling/Star.

There are also two significant programs in PVC separation that should shortly become commercial. One system, developed by National Recovery Technologies, Nashville, Tenn., with funding from SPI's Vinyl Institute, Wayne, N.J., is intended to detect PVC among mixed containers. This is done 100% automatically, using electromagnetic energy to locate the approximate position of the PVC container, and then use that data to sort. A prototype of the unit is expected to be installed in a commercial facility this fall.

A second system, also funded by the Vinyl Institute, is being developed by CPRR. This system reportedly uses x-rays (a form of electromagnetic energy) to detect the chlorine atom in PVC. Project director Henry Frankel says the system has superior materials-handling capability, in which it can accommodate a wide range of bottle sizes and shapes. He claims that the process is capable of sorting bottles at a rate of 200-600/min. A pilot version has been running at the CPRR recycling lab since January, and Frankel expects a commercial installation in a few months.


Wellman's Sabourin names PET beverage bottles and unpigmented HDPE milk jugs as having the highest recycling value. "Today most PET comes from bottle deposit-return states," he says, and those deposit laws are directly responsible for the estimated 20% level of PET recycling today--far ahead of the 1% recycling rate for all plastics.

Some recyclers are feeling a pinch in the supply of PET. Steve Babenchek of St. Jude Polymers, Frackville, Pa., which recycles about 20 million lb/yr of PET, says that maintaining adequate supply is the company's biggest problem. Even so, St. Jude plans to expand its recycling of PET by another 8-10 million lb by the end of the summer. One possible source for additional supply is curbside collection. "We haven't yet seen the explosion of curbside material from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which theoretically should bring in 70-80 million lb/yr."

Peter Mechler of wTe Recycling/Star also has not yet observed a significant increase in the supply of PET through curbside collection programs. "Most curbside collection programs seem to be happening in bottle-bill states, so we're not seeing much PET coming back through curbside programs."

Mechler sees "spurts" in supply occurring as demand creates new sources of material. For the present, wTe Recycling/Star has enough raw material to meet its needs. One reason to expect continued tight supply is a sharp rise in recycling capacity.

Union Carbide plans to open what it calls the first full-scale multiple-plastics recycling facility in the U.S. in the first quarter of 1991. According to Ted Clark, the plant will initially target PET, but he expects the mix to skew toward HDPE as more curbside collection programs come on line. "Overall, the PE bottle business is larger than the PET bottle business by at least a 3:1 difference." He expects that trend to play into Carbide's strength as a resin producer.

Clark predicts that the overall market for HDPE use in bottles will grow from 3 billion lb/yr today to in excess of 4 billion lb by 1995. Recycled HDPE volume should grow from 25 million lb/yr to in excess of 300 million lb/yr by 1995. Recycled PET, which amounts to about 200-250 million lb/yr today, should climb to 400 million lb by 1995.

One HDPE recycler that's confident about the growth in demand for recycled resins in blow molding is Andrew Stephens, president of Eaglebrook Plastics, Chicago. Two years ago, the company introduced its Eagle Pro resin, made from 100% HDPE and available in both natural and mixed-color grade. Today Stephens claims that blow molders are its biggest customers, putting recycled HDPE back into bottles.


One interesting capability of the planned Union Carbide recycling plant will be its ability to handle film. Clark calls film one of the "great oversights" in plastics recycling so far, and is looking at several routes to generate a supply of post-consumer film material. He points out that film, as a business, is larger than bottles, adding that "it's a question of developing collection programs." One possibility is volunteer drop-off programs at supermarkets for T-shirt sacks. The drop-off programs would have to target uniform sources to eliminate unwanted material such as biodegradable additives, he says. Still other potential sources of large quantities of recyclable film are furniture sales outlets (wrapping film) and supermarkets, factories, and wholesale outlets that discard large amounts of pallet wrap.

Union Carbide is not alone in eyeing supermarkets as a source of film. Sonoco's High-Density Film Products Div., Hartsville, S.C., has instituted a pilot program with Virginia supermarkets to recover grocery sacks. It is planning to expand the collection program with New York-area supermarkets and other locations as well, according to Jerry Hayes, Sonoco's manager of environmental affairs.

Hayes says there are a number of end-use possibilities for the material. One is to sell the material to Sonoco Graham for use in blow molding motor-oil containers. Another possibility is to re-extrude the reclaimed film back into grocery sacks if an adequate supply of film exists. He claims that Sonoco has seen some interest from retailers in buying bags made from recycled resin.


Peter Mechler of wTe Recycling/Star claims that the relative shortage of PET bottles is squeezing profit margins for PET recyclers. "Star sells recycle at a discount from virgin-resin prices and at current selling prices has very slim margins." He says the price spread between recycled and virgin PET pellet is about 10-12^/lb for clear and 20^/lb for green. "The spread is good for the fabricator, but not as good for the recycler. We really shouldn't be selling at much of a discount to virgin." Roger Geyer of M.A. Industries says that it is a misconception to expect to pay less for recycle than prime. Post-consumer recycled materials include fixed costs associated with collection, sorting, and reclaiming. In addition, he adds, economies of scale have generally not yet been reached to offset those costs significantly.

Mechler says that customers' expectations of a discount from virgin is a key reason why recycling is not yet a profitable business. "In HDPE, you have to deal with the pricing of virgin resins, which are on a rollercoaster. If commodity-resin prices took a nose dive, it could squeeze PE recycling."

He advocates that some portion of municipal solid-waste cost-avoidance monies should be diverted back into recycling. "If a municipality saves $150 ton in landfill costs, they shouldn't look to recapture all of it. A portion of it should be diverted back into recycling in some way, either into collection or reprocessing." He adds that some sort of government involvement is necessary for recycling to come into its own.

Clark of Union Carbide says that one key factor in the market value of recycled HDPE is that it is generally replacing material of the same value. "The price of HDPE should be at or near the price of virgin, because that is the value you are replacing." He predicts that it will start out as a replacement of virgin, but will eventually create its own demand among customers who want to prove their "environmental" credentials.

For example, Thomas Rattray, associate director of packaging development for Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, points out that economics is not the only reason for using recycled materials. "Using recycle is not an economic thing for P&G. We are not doing this to save money." He adds that consumers have expressed concern about the environment, and want to buy packages with recycled content.


The National Polystyrene Recycling Co., a consortium of eight major resin suppliers, has set an ambitious goal of recycling 250 million lb of post-consumer PS per year. That's a goal that Amoco's Jim McLellan, for one, thinks will require more recycling capacity than is currently on line.

Tom Tomaszek, manager of recycling operations for Plastics Again, Leominster, Mass., the first operating facility of NPRC, predicts that as more recyclers come on line, demand will open up. One need is a cost-effective, national collection infrastructure.

Plastics Again places a value of material coming onto its dock at 10^/lb, and has a set of criteria on quality and quantity of raw material. Its recycled PS pellet is priced at 38^/lb in truckloads and 40^/lb for less-than-truckloads--about 80% of virgin PS prices. "We are hoping that people will put pressure on manufacturers to buy recycled product. That will create larger demand for our material, therefore we will be able to raise our price closer to that of virgin material."

He views recycling as being market driven, and says that there remains a need to develop markets. He favors legislation to provide economic incentives--perhaps tax abatements--to benefit processors who use recycled product.


Although PVC accounts for only 6-7% of plastic bottle poundage, both OxyChem and BFGoodrich are active in promoting PVC recycling. OxyChem continues with a program begun last September, in which it will buy PVC bottles from virtually anyone, according to Bill Carroll. The company pays 6-10^/lb for recyclable bottles--6^ for mixed colors plus clear bottles, 8^ for true clears, and 10^ for 5-gal water jugs or 1-gal handleware bottles. OxyChem plans to launch a line of vinyl compounds containing recycled material, called Eco Vinyl. It will be commercial by September in natural and opaque grades.

OxyChem's goal is to collect 20 million lb/yr of bottles by 1992. As in other types of resins, collection capacity is far behind reclaiming capacity. OxyChem's approach is to act as an outlet for existing recycling plants interested in reclaiming PVC. This approach will allow OxyChem to work with recyclers on a regional basis.

Carroll says that new sortation systems coming on line with capability of separating mixed plastics, including PVC, should help to relieve some of the recycling overcapacity or undersupply. "These systems are another leg up for people who want to recycle all plastic bottles, instead of just milk and soda." It will also solve the problem of cross-contamination between PVC and other plastics streams, such as PET, he adds.

BFGoodrich has taken a different approach to PVC recycling. On one level, it is trying to initiate closed-loop programs, according to Terry Mohoruk, manager of vinyl recycling. In one program in Wisconsin, for example, Goodrich is working with Schoeneck Containers, Inc. of New Berlin, Wis., one of the largest PVC bottle makers in the country. Under the plan, a local county will implement collection through a voluntary drop-off program at six sites initially; Goodrich will direct a reprocessor to grind and clean the material; and Schoeneck will reuse the reclaimed material back into bottles. Vice president David K. Schoeneck reports that his company has experimented with reground PVC bottles from two BFG pilot programs in Akron and Avon Lake, Ohio. Schoeneck successfully used 10% PVC regrind in pigmented containers and believes that 20% is feasible. He reportedly has also had acceptable results with 5% regrind in clear bottles.

BFG is also active in the industrial sector. It is working with another company to develop a way to recover PVC from wire and cable after the copper has been reclaimed. The company is cooperating with wire and cable manufacturers in the U.S. and Canada to identify markets for recovered PVC wire compound. One potential use is back into the wire and cable market. Mohoruk says that metal recovery companies are paying heavy fees--up to $200/ton--to bury the wire and cable plastics stream in landfills. He believes that the reclaimed PVC could be sold as a value-added product competitive with virgin.


Engineering resins are also seeing some activity in recycling. For example, Polymerland, Inc., Parkersburg, W.Va., sub. of GE Plastics, is active in reclaiming GE's own resins for eventual resale. According to Polymerland's manager of resource recovery, Mary Jo Jones, a major hurdle--as with commodity plastics--is lack of an infrastructure for collection and separation of materials. Jones says that identification of engineering plastics is a key problem, made more difficult than distinguishing among plastic bottles because of the greater variety. The other major part of GE's effort is in identifying niche markets for recycled engineering resins, which typically offer properties a bit broader than prime resin.

Finding adequate recyclable engineering-resin feedstock and end-use markets for it are also critical to MRC Polymers, Chicago, which makes proprietary compounds from recycled materials. MRC president A. George Staniulis says, "A source of supply is our lifeblood." In order to keep its continuity of supply, MRC sets up long-term relationships with its suppliers. It is a reliable market for raw material, often buying it whether it needs to or not.

MRC specializes in reclaiming engineering resins, which it compounds into materials with defined performance specifications that can compete against prime resins. For example, MRC claims that its PET/polycarbonate alloy is a good substitute for ABS/PC blends. Staniulis claims that the PET/PC blend has been approved in a number of applications, such as lawn and garden equipment. MRC is now testing its alloy for some noncritical automotive applications.

In trying to sell to new markets, MRC discounts its alloys as much as 20-30% off virgin prices. As reclaimed alloys become more accepted, that discount may diminish, he adds. In the future, he sees MRC extending its capability to make value-added products from recycle. One possibility is to bypass the pelletizing step, and make sheet directly from scrap.

The vision of automotive bodyparts recycling, first proclaimed by GE Plastics three years ago, may be progressing toward realization faster in Europe than in America. At the K'89 exhibition in Dusseldorf last Fall, GE announced that it had an agreement with the Munich Association of Car Dismantlers to take back GE's own plastics from cars. GE also said it had an agreement with Kotrac Milieu B.V. of Rotterdam, Holland, which has a truck-mounted regrinding facility that reportedly will collect and regrind GE automotive resins from all over Europe. Third, GE is working with compounder Ravago Plastics NV of Arendonk Belgium to rework the GE plastics that are collected.

And as we reported last month (p. 163), W. German automaker BMW AG plans to construct a car disassembly plant in Wackersdorf for operation by the mid-1990s. Future BMW models will be engineered to facilitate identification of component materials for reuse, perhaps by a coding system such as is being used for package recycling, according to a BMW spokesman.


One controversial potential market for recycled resin is direct food contact. Some industry experts--including Tom Rattray of Procter & Gamble--say that it may be a long-term possibility as new technology develops. Yet he and others also point out that the demand for recycle in nonfood applications is so strong, that it will be a long time before reclaim makes its way back into food contact.

SPI counsel Jerome Heckman insists that legally, there is nothing that precludes the use of recycled plastics in food containers if the material meets FDA food-additive regulations on the purity of food-contact materials. Nonetheless, potential liability to the packager for using recycled resin in food contact is daunting, and not a risk everyone is willing to take. Norman Bornstein, director of bag compliance and regulatory compliance for Cryovac Corp., div. of W.R. Grace & Co., Duncan, S.C., considers plastic reclaimed from solid waste to be unacceptable for food contact. "There is nobody who can verify that the material pulled out of post-consumer waste can be reprocessed in such a way that it will comply with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The reprocessor has full knowledge of what he himself has added to the material, but he has no way of knowing what else may have gotten into it in its previous manufacture, use or disposal that shouldn't be in there."

Still, programs are afoot to reuse PET--95% of which is originally used for food packaging--back into food applications. At a January recycling conference at the FDA, Floyd Flexon of Johnson Controls' Plastic Container Div., Manchester, Mich., said that the technology was feasible. He pointed out that since PET containers were designed to hold beverage products, recycling of the material would not pose problems of uncleared additives being inadvertently used. Johnson Controls is looking at three technologies to accomplish this: depolymerization of the PET to monomers or an intermediate stage, to be purified and polymerized again; multilayer containers with regrind buried between layers of virgin resin in contact with the food; and supercleaning after grinding by a proprietary process. Flexon has stated that he hopes to introduce a recycle-containing food package within two years.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s Polyester Div., Akron, Ohio, is also looking to close the loop with PET for food applications. Jim Ranomer, manager of recycling programs, says the resin supplier is making progress in breaking PET down to an intermediate stage and re-polymerizing it. It has already succeeded in offering commercially a nonfood-grade re-polymerized resin, and is using the data gained from this to develop a food-grade recycled material, which it expects to introduce in about a year (PT, Nov. '89, p. 93).

Because the process is still a batch operation, cost of the recycled PET will initially be higher than virgin, Ranomer admits. As the process scales up, the price should come down. He adds that the food-grade market is essential to allow Goodyear to scale up the process enough to be price-competitive with virgin.

Meanwhile, in March, what is believed to be the first, limited food-contact application of recycled plastic was approved by FDA. Dolco Packaging, Sherman Oaks, Calif., got the go-ahead to produce egg cartons from recycled PS obtained from foam egg cartons, meat trays, school lunch trays, fast-food containers, and beverage cups.


If recyclers of "pure" resins face a shortage of supply, recyclers of commingled plastics "will always have access to the lion's share of what no one wants," says Gary Jameson, president of Dominion Plastics, Malone, N.Y. He claims that commingled plastics have barely scratched the surface of potential applications.

Jameson is looking to tap markets in which chemical resistance, dielectric qualities, or strength are called for. He claims that commingled materials can have a consistent base matrix that can be modified in a number of ways for different applications, and plans to offer specifications on materials that can be incorporated into product design. "Just because we are using garbage doesn't mean that we are producing garbage products." Or, put another way, garbage-in doesn't necessarily mean garbage-out.

One who agrees is Dr. Wolfgang Mack of Polymerix Inc., a new firm in Lincoln Park, N.J. Polymerix has developed compatibilizer technology that it says produces commingled plastic lumber of higher strength than is usual in such products (PT, March '90, p. 120). Polymerix is willing to license its technology.
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Author:De Gaspari, John
Publication:Plastics Technology
Date:May 1, 1990
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