There is the theory of plastics recycling, and then there is the practical market reality of it. So notes Lawrence T. Black, a former Waste Management Inc. executive who now is senior adviser to McDonough Innovation, the Charlottesville, Va.-based sustainable-development consultants.
Through his own firm in Denver, Black Ink Results, he works with governments, urban planners, major corporations and thought-leaders globally to help address waste, recycling, packaging and circular-economy challenges.
“There are a lot of numbers out there about the potential value of plastic in its recycled form,” he said in an April 6 telephone interview, “and yet I know that there are literally containers upon containers of [scrap] plastic sitting on docks all over the world because nobody wants it. If it is so valuable and so worthwhile, why does nobody want it?” Black asks.
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A key challenge, according to Dr. Michael Biddle, a 25-year plastics recycling veteran, is the lack of a large U.S. domestic market for buyers of scrap plastics who want supplies that are reliable and consistent in both quality and volume, and collectors, generators and recyclers who want a reliable market that can create sufficient value to cover their costs and provide an attractive return on their investment.
Biddle, who founded durable-goods recycler MBA Polymers Inc. in 1994, and clean-tech consulting firm Material Solutions in March 2015, noted that while operators of U.S. material recovery facilities (MRFs) demand long-term supply agreements often extending from 10 to 20 years from local municipalities before they will invest in their MRFs, they remain reluctant to sign long-term supply agreements with their customers, preferring to rely instead on a “trading to the highest bidder” model.
Slideshow: MBA Polymers
Check out MBA Polymers' global operations in these slides. Here, we get an inside look at the company's UK-based plant.
Another view inside MBA's UK plant.
MBA Polymers plant in Kematen an der Ybbs, Austria.
Incoming raw materials at MBA Polymers Austria.
This reluctance has continued, even with the slowdown in export markets for mixed plastic waste (largely a factor of decreased demand from China) and the fact that their trading models have turned against them.
Still, Biddle remains optimistic. “There is a huge opportunity waiting to be tapped in plastics recycling. I’m convinced that it’s mostly about the streamlining of processes, as well as about the very important economies of scale.” Indeed, Biddle suggests, economies of scale and streamlined, optimized processes are the only real edge that virgin resin has over recycled plastics. “All other advantages,” he says, “are in recycling’s court.”
Biddle notes that steel recycling went through many of the same growing pains. “Virgin steel companies often said that steel recycling would never expand beyond ‘downcycling’ – a method of recycling that involves breaking an item down into its component elements or materials – into applications such as reinforcing bars. But today, the biggest steel companies in the U.S. are based on mini-mills and recycled steel.” Biddle sees no reason why the plastics industry can’t replicate the steel industry’s success.
When it comes to the demand challenge, Black says, “Too many manufacturers just arbitrarily say ‘virgin [resin],’ since they don’t want to mess with the complexity of a recycled plastic – even for things that are ludicrous, like a cheap plastic chair. Why someone would want to spec virgin [for such applications] is beyond me – but they do.”
Additionally, he noted, the major producers of virgin plastic resins tend to talk down recycled resin to their customers by stressing the potential problems of using anything less than virgin. They suggest there is a liability or risk exposure in using recycled materials “because you don’t know what’s in there.” Ideally, he suggests, we need a business model whereby these major petrochemical companies also can make some money with recycled resin.
Black believes it’s vital for the product manufacturers, brand owners and big-box retailers to drive demand for recycled resin. And that brings its own challenges.
Walmart, for example, is a driver of demand at the highest level, and across various channels. And it can make a statement such as “We want X quantity of recycled material,” but there’s always a caveat – “as long as it doesn’t cost more.”
A lot of the buyers, Black contends, have not been properly educated in how to negotiate the whole recycled-materials buy. “When you have a strategy of using recycled material, but you don’t have any training that supports that, the odds of your strategy being implemented are pretty low.”
But with dirt-cheap oil prices now – and resulting low virgin-resin prices – it’s a tougher argument than ever to try to convince product makers to opt for a non-virgin alternative. The only real rationale is to take the long view, Black suggests. “Eventually oil prices will rise, and when they do, wouldn’t it be nice if you already had your production shifted to recycled materials, so you’re not caught in that spike?
“My optimism is that a few big players educate their buyers on spec’ing recycled plastic and that they also have the knowledge to successfully negotiate price parity. I think that’s an essential component. I could deliver that program tomorrow – if people would want it.”
Black likes to focus on Walmart, because they certainly can move the needle. And he suggests focusing on private-label goods, as opposed to branded goods, because the manufacturer of private-label goods has the power to make the specifications for its own products. Retailers, for example, “are not going to change a Tide bottle – that’s not going to happen. But they can change their own bottle of liquid detergent.”
Plasticity Forum will Explore Sustainability Topics
Both Mike Biddle and Larry Black will be speaking April 27, 2016 at the fifth annual Plasticity Forum, a plastics sustainability conference taking place in Shanghai, concurrently with the massive Chinaplas 2016 trade show there.
Plasticity will explore the circular economy, the use of bioplastics, recycling advancements and scalable solutions for maximizing valuable uses of plastic while minimizing its environmental footprint. It also will offer a guided Chinaplas tour and a half-day green-design workshop.
Black’s focus is to train the buyers on how to: a) ask specifically for recycled plastic, b) ensure it gets spec’d in to future products, and c) negotiate price parity or a price advantage compared with virgin resin. The manufacturer then can promote that as a good feature for the product, and use it as annual-report material.
For his part, Biddle aims to streamline the recycling process and, in doing so, sees a real opportunity to recover more plastics. He notes that most developed countries today use “near infrared sorters” in combination with hand sorters to recover plastics from their municipal solid waste streams to create scrap plastic bales that are rich in PET and polyethylene (and, increasingly, polypropylene). In such systems today, the scrap is touched by the trash hauler, the MRF, the processor and sometimes the compounder, before it ever reaches the customer. This “many touches” approach translates to very high handling and transportation costs.
A vastly better, more streamlined option, according to Biddle, works as follows:
- Uses the existing collection infrastructures;
- Allows existing MRFs to make a single mixed-plastics stream, which is:
- less costly to produce (reducing or eliminating optical sorting and hand-picking);
- much simpler to manage, and
- easier to sell, as it’s a single commodity instead of managing multiple commodities
- Eliminates a great amount of the handling and transportation costs;
- Generates some of the same economies of scale for recycled plastics as currently enjoyed by virgin producers.
If this is so beneficial, why hasn’t it been done already? Quite simply, Biddle says, because the technology did not exist before to process complicated, mixed-plastic waste streams and to produce high-quality, multiple high-purity products. But, he insists, the technology exists now.
Biddle says he know this because the MBA Polymers plant in Worksop, England, is already executing this single-stream approach at a commercial scale. And other recyclers are starting to demonstrate an ability to achieve lower-cost and near-zero-waste solutions, as well. CNN in fall 2014 did this four-minute video profile of Biddle and his UK plant, which offers further insights.
“I believe the time is right,” Biddle declares, “for a demonstration project in both developed and developing countries.”
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