Recycling: Rally ‘Round The Circular Economy

Rally ‘Round The Circular Economy

 

 

Discarded plastics underscore both the problem and the opportunity

 

 

 

he demand for lifetime stewardship of products, including safe and appropriate end-of-life disposal, increasingly impacts the chemical industry. Today’s growing call to maximize the use of resources and minimize the amount of waste — often termed the “circular economy” — adds a new twist and offers chemical makers a chance to reap rich rewards.

Careless and cavalier disposal of products has created severe environmental issues. Discarded plastics, such as single-use containers, shopping bags and drinking straws, exemplify the problem and provide what many see as its most visible and alarming manifestation. As our March cover story, “Industry Tackles Plastics Plague,” pointed out, chemical makers and other firms are starting to address that issue, both through collaborative efforts and individually.

Initiatives include work to convert used plastics into feedstocks for new plastics and chemicals, other raw materials for manufacturing, as well as fuels for transportation and other uses. Researchers are exploring a broad variety of options; for instance, May’s “Upcycling Promises to Pare Plastics Pollution,” describes a process that combines single-use polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles with bio-based materials such as muconic acid to create fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP) with higher market value than the PET itself and better strength than conventional FRP.

 

“Advanced plastics recycling and recovery technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way we make, use and reuse our plastic resources,” believes Steve Russell, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Washington, D.C.

Success can lead to substantial economic benefits according to a report, “Economic Impact of Advanced Plastics Recycling and Recovery Facilities in the U.S.,” that ACC issued in late March.

While 3.1 million tons of post-use plastics were mechanically recycled in the United States in 2015, 26.0 million tons of such material were sent to landfills that year, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, notes ACC.

The report uses what it calls a conservative assumption, i.e., recovery and processing of 25% of landfilled material. This amount of material would support operation of 260 new plastics recycling and recovery facilities, it states. To come up with that estimate, ACC developed a “model” representative facility. This relies upon pyrolysis and catalytic depolymerization and can handle comingled mixed plastics. However, ACC adds that other technologies such as gasification also may make sense.

The model facility requires a capital investment of $36 million and annually can process 25,000 tons of mixed plastics to make 82,500 bbl of diesel, 41,000 bbl of naphtha and 2,000 mt of waxes.

These facilities would result in 38,500 jobs — 9,400 at the sites themselves, 15,100 at supply chain partners, and the remainder spurred by the spending of those workers, the report estimates. This represents a $2.2 billion increase in annual payrolls, says ACC.

Moreover, U.S. economic output would rise by $9.9 billion, notes the report. Increased output at the new recycling and recovery facilities would account for $4.1 billion, with the rest of the gain stemming from the impact on suppliers and worker spending.

This added dimension to stewardship offers industry an opportunity to do well by doing good.

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Counting all the numbers in the 2019 recyclers ranking

 

 

It's time to dig a little deeper into the data collected for our annual recyclers ranking.

This week's print issue charts the top 25 reprocessors in North America, and provides a directory for all 184 firms we've been able to contact. There are fewer firms on this year's list. We said goodbye to a couple of firms that went 100 percent captive in the past year. We also were unable to contact several brokers to confirm their business. If your company is missing, just let us know.

Adding up all that data, we tracked 13.1 billion pounds of material in this list, with more than 78 percent being reprocessed. A few firms increased their mix of reprocessed vs. brokered material.

Waste Management Recycle America LLC went up 11 million pounds, while AR Recycling LLC and In-Plas Recycling Inc. both increased 10 million pounds. Currently the mix between post consumer and post industrial is 58.3 percent to 40.8 percent.

If you want to take the really long view, our very first directory was published in 1993. However, Plastics News started tracking firms by reprocessed volumes in our 2010 issue. So how does that mix stack up? With 121 billion pounds reported since then, its nearly identical with 58 percent post industrial and 41 percent post consumer.

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So who had the biggest gains in volume? Here are the top five:

B&B Plastics Inc. of Rialto, Calif., had a 99.2 million pound increase.

 

Waste Management Recycle America LLC of Houston had a 67.4 million pound increase.

RJM International Inc. of Tustin, Calif., had a 46.7 million pound increase.

Berry Global Inc. of Beaumont, Texas, had a 46.4 million pound increase.

Avangard Innovative LP of Houston had a 40 million pound increase.

One other note from this year's ranking: Happy 23rd anniversary to Plish Imports Corp. of Houston.

The ranking data can be found online at www.plasticsnews.com/rankings/recyclers.

 

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All this is commendable of course and the recycled amounts sound impressive, but what percentage of plastics sold each year are being recycled? Also what actually happens to the recycled material? I know I can buy recycled paper but I don't recall seeing any recycled plastics on sale. I've often been curious a bout the business model of these recyclers.. 

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People tend to think, and have been led to believe, that recycling is a magical process where they sort their garbage, put it in the respective container (paper, plastic and glass), roll these containers to the curb and a truck appears, gathers their garbage and it magically disappears to be recycled into a useful product in the future.

Companies in the recycling industry are not in it for their health, they are in it to make a profit. Some of this profit may be due to subsidies and some may be due to segregating the waste and selling it as 'feedstock' to firms that can manufacture something marketable out of it.

It is unrealistic to believe that 100% of all the recycled product (garbage) can be repurposed or transformed into a useful material. So what happens to the unwanted recycled material? It ends up in a landfill!

Changing peoples attitudes would be much more effective than mandated recycling. Simply stop offering single use plastic items - people will adjust.

For Americans on this post (if you are as old as I am), you will remember back in the 60's and 70's nobody thought twice about throwing cigarette butts, food wrappers or soft drink cans out of their vehicles when on the road. Litter laws were passed, public awareness was garnered and groups started cleaning up sections of highway. The highways are much cleaner now and you rarely see people throwing trash out of their vehicles. 

If you are really concerned about the environment, changing attitudes and mandating simple changes in attitude and behavior is much more effective tool and you can see the results with your own eyes.

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