Recently, many companies have captured headlines making new, or renewed, commitments to using recycled content. Earlier this year, Unilever announced plans to increase its use of recycled content in plastic packaging to 25 percent by 2025. The Procter & Gamble Co. has unveiled packaging made from plastics recovered from beaches.
These companies should be applauded because making any change in the supply chain is no small feat. But shifting to recycled content can bring new challenges that can take time to overcome. Understanding those challenges begins to explain why the shift to using recycled plastic can take years in some cases. Meaningfully accelerating that process has become a goal for the members of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), headquartered in Washington.
The recycled-content challenge
Setting a goal to use recycled content is the easy part. Reaching that goal is truly an achievement. The process of sourcing and qualifying recycled content is different than the process for using virgin resins. Options, suppliers and material information abound in the prime commodity resin world. Continuity in material supply and performance is expected and easily achieved. Material qualification for prime resins is a process, but it is generally a straightforward one. None of these assumptions can be made when a company begins exploring options in recycled plastics.
Outlined below are some examples of challenges that companies may encounter as they move through this process.
No two recyclers or recycling streams are alike. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and, increasingly, polypropylene (PP) are recovered widely, recycled across the U.S. and are available in large quantities. For example, PET is used in, and recycled for, a range of high- and low-end applications, such as bottles and thermoformed packaging. End users typically can find the right recycler with the right supply of material for a given application.
When a manufacturer requires a different resin type, particularly a specialty resin, it can be more challenging to find the right recycler or recycling stream. This is a process that can take many months to complete. To further complicate this issue, in some cases, neither the resource recovery companies nor the recyclers really know what they have and what they are selling.
Subtle differences in resin grades, additives and fillers dramatically can affect the use of the resin in specific applications but may not be evident by looking at, or even by processing, recycled material. Often, costly technical testing is required to accurately identify recycled materials, and even then one may only get a partial picture of what one has. Being able to accurately define these critical properties can mean the difference between recycled materials finding an application or ending up in the landfill.
Some companies prohibit single-supplier situations. This means every material used in the manufacturing process must be able to be sourced from more than one material supplier. This policy makes perfect sense to ensure competitive pricing and to avoid feedstock disruptions. However, when sourcing recycled content, particularly less widely available resins such as polystyrene (PS) or polycarbonate (PC), only one recycler may meet a company’s volume needs, material specification and environmental, health and safety requirements. How, then, does a company navigate a policy that would otherwise prohibit a single-supplier business relationship with a recycler? This problem is not insurmountable, but it can take time to overcome internally.
The length of time to qualify a new material can give product design teams pause when making supplier changes. Depending on the application, the material qualification process can take well more than a year, and that’s just substituting prime material for a similar grade from another supplier. Now add the further complication of the variability that is inherent in many recycling streams. This likely will extend the qualification process because of the need for additional testing and time to ensure product engineers are confident in the recycler’s ability to produce consistent material.
Another challenge can be the assurance of constant supply. Unlike prime resins, which can be consistently produced with readily available chemical building blocks, recycled plastics can be subject to additional supply volatility. If a brand owner makes a commitment to using a declared level of recycled content, it needs assurances the recycled material will be available and delivered on schedule.
Collectively, these challenges are responsible for the long time it usually takes to achieve a recycled-content goal. These are not offered to discourage companies from making such commitments. Instead, these examples illustrate the choices companies must make to be successful in this pursuit.
Let’s imagine a company has integrated recycled plastics into its supply chain. The experience of navigating this process has given it a competitive edge in expanding future use of recycled content and further leveraging the green marketability of its products. This experience has translated into valuable intellectual property that can and should be capitalized. However, it is only an isolated success story when the details of its success are not shared with the wider industry.
Considering the reality of this process, it is not entirely surprising that the U.S. still stands at a 9.5 percent recycling rate for plastics as calculated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 2014. Every plastics and packaging trade association, its member companies, municipalities and, most importantly, consumers want and, in many cases, expect this calculated recycling rate to increase.
The reality is we have not seen significant change in the past 15 years. But considering the challenges companies must overcome to achieve their recycled-content goals, is it surprising growth has been incremental? As an industry, how do we accelerate adoption of recycled content in a way that creates the market pull-through that increases the recycling rate?
Putting theory into practice
PLASTICS believes the answer lies in providing as much open-source information as possible about these recycling streams so brand owners and processors can reduce the time it takes for sourcing and testing material. That information must come from coordinated demonstration projects that engage the entirety of the supply chain and yield reliable information all companies can use to answer preliminary questions about recycled material.
To test this theory, PLASTICS has put together two demonstration projects that aim to quantify the economic viability of recovery as well as to cultivate and measure demand for the new recycled plastics streams.
In July 2016, PLASTICS launched the End-of-Life Vehicle (ELV) Recycling project. The PLASTICS Recycling Committee has a mission of identifying new, untapped generating streams of recycled plastics. Vehicles are being manufactured with more plastic parts and components. One of the most significant plastic parts by weight on a vehicle is bumpers, averaging 20 pounds of thermoplastic olefin (TPO) per vehicle. We began the project knowing three critical pieces of information:
1. Recycling of bumpers is commonplace, so the technology exists to efficiently remove paint and reprocess the plastics.
2. Around the world, bumpers also are reprocessed and used without the paint being removed.
3. Recovery of bumpers is happening in an isolated fashion around the country.
The ELV recycling work group was tasked with demonstrating the viability of bumper recovery in a way that would lend to widescale adoption of ELV bumper recycling across the U.S. while also cultivating new markets for postconsumer TPO. This would take nothing less than a full-scale plastics supply chain and recycled value chain approach. Through PLASTICS’ Recycling and Transportation and Industrial Plastics (TIP) committees, we had the right players to bring to the table.
The result benefits everyone in the supply chain. With this approach, PLASTICS has been able to level the playing field between large and small companies. It has provided an environment that fosters creative problem solving and offers neutral ground for the development of new ideas and solutions. This is much like the role that often is played by academic institutions, but PLASTICS is much closer to the immediate problems faced by the industry and better equipped to rally companies to help.
Phase I of this project is nearing completion. It has demonstrated the potential for recovery of bumpers from auto scrap yards, created an economic pro forma that auto recyclers and plastics recyclers can use to estimate the economic benefit of this activity and worked to build a directory of plastics recyclers that have the capability and capacity to reprocess bumpers. PLASTICS will work with trade associations representing scrap yard operators to further encourage bumper recovery prior to the automobile being shredded.
Phase II, which began May 21 of this year, focuses on identifying potential end markets for this material, including having auto manufacturers, as well as other manufacturers in other sectors, evaluate the recycled TPO (which has near-virgin-like properties). Because all material properties and testing results from the project are shared publicly through an open-source approach, those who want to evaluate the material will have access to data on a range of physical properties that can inform target application testing quickly.
The collaborative approach led by PLASTICS in the project shows the ability to unlock interest in recycled TPO in a way that has not been demonstrated before.
Further building on the success of this approach, PLASTICS was asked to launch a similar effort for polyethylene (PE) film. PE recyclers are facing challenges. Lower-than-average prime PE prices, significant additional PE virgin capacity coming online over the next year and renewed efforts to double film collection have resulted in an imbalance, with supply outweighing demand for recycled PE. (See the article “Virgin PE Production Ramps Up”.)
PLASTICS formed a work group of members and nonmembers, representing prime resin suppliers, film manufacturers, recyclers, compounders and brand owners. Every participant has a stake in increasing recovery, using more recycled content or selling recycled materials. Every party is vested in the process and willing to share the technical information necessary to advance demand for recycled PE film.
To accomplish this, the work group is assembling an open-source library of data on the physical properties of three streams of PE film: postcommercial, return-to-retail and material recovery facility (MRF) residue. This data will help to identify new markets for this material and also can be used by any company looking to incorporate recycled PE film into its products.
Our hope is the material testing being conducted by this group will save companies valuable research and development time and resources in the evaluation process. Additionally, we want to show the opportunity for these recycled materials to be incorporated into existing products as well as into entirely new products that are designed to use recycled materials exclusively.
Cultivating change via collaboration
While PLASTICS has only tested this approach on plastics recycling projects, participants see the potential to apply this approach to any innovative, large-scale changes sought in manufacturing feedstocks for the industry. As each company embarks on evaluation of new materials, nearly universal gaps of information must be answered in the pursuit of using new materials. Trade associations have a great opportunity to leverage the collective experience of their members to gather that data and make it available in a noncompetitive way that will help advance industry goals.
PLASTICS will continue to offer tools, resources and information that reduce the barriers for companies in the plastics industry to achieve recycled-content goals as well as broader goals in sustainability.