Monday, November 3rd, 2014

SPI: EPS Foam Can Be Recycled, Easily and Profitably

SPI and its Recycling Committee are, once again, out to correct another misconception about plastics.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS), the kind that’s found in coolers, in takeout food packaging, in shipped cardboard boxes filled with packaging peanuts and in many other contexts, is a material that’s widely misunderstood and, in more than one corner of the consumer world, mistakenly thought to be unrecyclable.

“EPS serves many important roles in our lives,” said the SPI Recycling Committee in a new paper, titled “Unlocking the EPS Recovery Potential: Technologies Enabling Efficient Collection and Recovery.” “It insulates. It protects. It has a fraction of the environmental impact in the full life cycle compared to other non-resin alternatives. The greatest challenge for this material at end-of-life is, however, also a symptom of its best feature; it is light, creating a unique set of challenges for collection and processing.” However, as the paper outlines, when paired with the right technology solutions, these challenges are easily overcome.

Dart Container’s PS foam recycling support includes collection/shipping containers.

In the just over a year that it’s been in existence, the SPI Recycling Committee has already notched success after success in moving the needle on plastics recycling, and its EPS paper is the latest effort to prolong its winning streak. “Unlocking the EPS Recovery Potential: Technologies Enabling Efficient Collection and Recovery” finds that “lack of awareness and infrastructure to support the collection of EPS has been cited as a significant barrier to expanding the collection of EPS products,” but that “having the right technology in place to support efficient collection and processing of EPS products is key to unlocking the recovery potential of these valuable materials.”

As such, the paper provides a primer to recyclers working domestically and internationally on what technologies are available to make EPS recycling possible and profitable. In addition to broadly discussing the EPS market and opportunities contained therein, “Unlocking the EPS Recovery Potential: Technologies Enabling Efficient Collection and Recovery” also includes a list, complete with information on equipment capacity and availability, of technologies recyclers can use to expand their EPS processing capability.

“Investing in technology to expand the recovery and processing of EPS can enable plastics recyclers to meet both an economic and environmental need,” said SPI President and CEO William R. Carteaux. “Increasing recycling rates for all types of PCR plastic materials is both good business and good corporate citizenship, and the SPI Recycling Committee continues to do an excellent job leveraging its unique position in SPI, and throughout the entire $374-billion plastics industry, to expand end-use opportunities for recycled plastics, including EPS.”

spi_logo_2000x1007Facts, figures and intelligence such as that contained within the Recycling Committee’s EPS report do more than just serve as valuable business tools for companies in the plastics industry. They also combat the misconceptions that keep plastic materials like EPS and others from being recycled. “People just don’t realize all the options in recycling that are out there,” said Jon Stephens, senior vice president of Avangard Innovative and chairman of the SPI Recycling Committee’s Technology and Equipment subcommittee. “Half the people don’t even know they can take their grocery bags back to the grocery store to be recycled. Once we can get this education piece out and promote recycling and let citizens know that they can recycle this material, more communities will collect it, keep it out of landfills, reduce the space and create a revenue stream for the product.”

“It’s a huge environmental benefit,” he added. “Like any other plastics packaging material, it does serve a purpose, if not for the plastics industry then for the food industry or for the packaging industry. It all serves a purpose.”

Monday, October 6th, 2014

SPI Supports APBA Referendum on California SB 270

By William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association

William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI

William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI

As I mentioned last week in my comments at the 2014 Global Plastics Summit, California recently enacted SB 270, the nation’s only statewide plastic bag ban. SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association always has and always will advocate for science and fact-based legislation, but SB 270 does not fit this description. In a press release issued last Tuesday, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) announced it would take the steps necessary to gather signatures and qualify a referendum to repeal it:

“The approval of SB 270 by the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown could serve as a case study for what happens when greedy special interests and bad government collide in the policymaking process. 

“Senator Padilla’s bill was never legislation about the environment. It was a back room deal between the grocers and union bosses to scam California consumers out of billions of dollars without providing any public benefit—all under the guise of environmentalism. If this law were allowed to go into effect it would jeopardize thousands of California manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets.”

SPI supports the APBA in opposing SB 270 and seeking a referendum. We do not believe that in passing SB 270 California lawmakers acted in the public interest, and we trust that the public will repeal it at the ballot box.

Plastic bags are the smartest, most environmentally-friendly choice at the checkout counter. Ninety percent (90%) of Americans reuse their plastic bags as trashcan liners, pet waste bags, lunch bags, etc., despite the fact that SB 270’s proponents have attempted to brand plastic bags as “single-use.” This is a myth that’s disproven every day in homes across America. When plastic bags outlive their usefulness, they can be recycled: they are 100% recyclable and can be converted into building materials like decking, fencing and playground equipment. Moreover, they consume less than 4% of the water, generate less than 80% of the waste and require less than 70% of the energy necessary to manufacture their paper counterparts. In addition, consumers will be forced to pay at least 10 cents for every paper bag they purchase.

As for the bags that are oil-derived and made in China, which SB 270’s proponents promote, most are made from nonwoven polypropylene, which isn’t recyclable. In addition, cotton grocery bags must be used 131 times before their contribution to global climate change becomes lower than that of a plastic bag used just once. These bags also have been found to contain toxic lead and harbor harmful bacteria.

Further, plastic bags make up less than two percent (2%) of California’s municipal waste stream and just fourth-tenths of a percent (0.4%) of the overall American waste stream. Thus the bill’s environmental impact will be negligible if not nonexistent. Proponents have been forced to acknowledge this, choosing instead to label SB 270 “a good start.” For them, plastic bags are just the beginning, and plastic bottles, cutlery and other materials are now in their crosshairs.

apba logo_2012That is the issue at hand. The lack of science or logic in SB 270 sets a disconcerting precedent for what legislators could do under the guise of environmental stewardship. This should concern the plastics industry at large: unscientific bills supported by special interests could encourage bans on other plastic products. This must be the beginning of a discussion that plastics recyclers, suppliers, manufacturers and processors have about the future of the industry. The APBA has started this conversation, and we hope the entire plastics supply chain chooses to be a part of it.

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

A Crazy, Upside-Down World: Brand Owners, the Plastics Supply Chain and History’s Most Informed, and Most Fickle, Consumers

In the broadest terms, the challenges facing brand owners hinge on the fact that today’s market operates in a world wherein information is more available than ever before, but in a way that continues to defy logic. Consumers now make decisions about the products they buy based on information that could be correct, exaggerated, patently false or a modern combination of all three, and rely more on emotional appeal than traditional market functions such as quality, price, value or convenience.

Additionally, consumer behavior now more easily shapes the general public’s perception of a product. A liter of water could be packaged in the most recyclable container that science and progress can create, but the consumer that buys it is still required to deposit it in another container and put it out on their curb on the correct day, or, in some cases, make the effort to actually travel to a local recycling facility, with the container in tow.bottles_shutterstock_12202219

But when a consumer doesn’t do that, and the water bottle lands in the gutter or in the ocean or in the landfill, other consumers don’t blame the person that didn’t recycle that bottle. They blame brand owners.

Demands for high-quality, lightweight, convenient, recyclable packaging essentially gave birth to the modern plastics economy, and resulted in amazing innovations in materials, design and manufacturing. But the consumer’s list of demands never shrinks, only getting longer and longer until arriving at a point like today’s market where brand owners are being pulled in too many different directions. Today, having the best product, in every sense of the term, isn’t enough anymore.

“It’s a crazy upside down world where you could have a great product and be a great environmental steward and very conscious of those environmental takeouts and those assessments and lightweight your packaging and all of those other things, even including using post-consumer recycled material (PCR),” observed Neil Gloger, CEO of Intergroup International. “But you can still lose because you’re not winning the social market-share, as it were.”

This social market-share, as Gloger put it, operates in a supply chain that starts and ends with consumers, but swallows up businesses and even governments on the way, and as it runs its course each party takes steps to place increasingly complicated and frequently counterintuitive demands on brand owners. “A mom in the middle of the Midwest can’t find a place to recycle her kids’ juice boxes,” Gloger offered as an example. “Now everybody who makes juice boxes hears from a retailer, ‘if you ship us another truck of that type of packaging, we will reject it because it doesn’t conform to our packaging standards’ and that was $300 million in business you were doing that just went down the drain.”

This phenomenon of consumers creating and shaping demand happens more quickly today than it has at any other point in history, and to understand why it’s such a heavy burden for the plastics industry to accommodate the new normal, it helps to look at how packaging developed over time. “You have the old normal which was you packaged stuff because it started as a public health issue, and then it became a marketing tool and then it became ease of logistics and creating a lower carbon footprint,” Gloger said. “And we’ve progressed from that to a point where the product that you’re buying is not environmentally responsible because it’s packaged.”

The plastics supply chain developed to account for all of those desires among consumers—public health, marketing, logistics, a lower carbon footprint—but now it must be more environmentally-focused than might’ve previously seemed possible, a shift that brand owners have led admirably, though that’s not how they’re often portrayed by the media, consumers and environmental groups.

brandowners-logo-final-4c“Over the past 5-8 years the brand owners have really taken a leadership role in being responsible stewards,” Gloger said. “The organizations will say ‘they haven’t done anything,’ or ‘too little, too late,’ or ‘they’re only doing this because if they do that they won’t have to do the real work,’” he noted, adding that in many ways this has always been the case. “Say you have a modeling company that’s lightweighting packaging,” he said. “Their motivation wasn’t really to save the environment; their motivation was they wanted to save 40 percent on shipping.”

The point, however, is that the plastics supply chain, driven by consumers and led by brand owners, can operate with a profit interest in a way that satisfies consumer needs. “These things can work in synergy,” Gloger said. “I think the biggest challenge is being able to touch humanities at the same level as the other side does, with their messaging that packaging, everything that the company does, is not coming from an evil empire.”

It used to be that perception was only reality in marketing, but now perception is reality in most corners of the business world. Anthropologists could chalk this up to the advent of social media or other cultural forces, but in the meantime, operating in a way that suits the idiosyncrasies of today’s market isn’t a choice; it’s an imperative. Brand owners need to not only be environmental stewards, but they have to be storytellers as well. “If you have a mom in Iowa saying don’t buy this because the packaging just goes to the landfill, you have to be able to have somebody at the same level understand that there’s another story here, or a bigger story or a better story,” Gloger said. “The story just has to get out. It’s not about companies. It’s about people.”2014_AMFC

Gloger will discuss these issues and provide brand owner-specific solutions at SPI’s upcoming Annual Meeting and Fall Conference in Chicago from Sept. 17-19. Join us! Attendees can register on-site at the conference hotel.

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The Green Fence and Why Every Recycler Needs to Pay Attention to China

China’s ravenous consumption of scrap plastics came to a not-quite-screeching, but still drastic halt near the end of 2012. At the time, however, you’d have been forgiven for dismissing the decline as a standard seasonal aberration.

For U.S. recyclers, a period of prosperity preceded China’s decision to begin enforcing laws restricting the importation of certain scrap plastic. “Everyone agrees that there was a time when there were no questions asked,” said Xavier A. Cronin, editor of a recycled plastics report at Petro-Chem Wire. “[They said] ‘as long as it’s scrap plastic, we’ll take it.’” This attitude made China a logical and lucrative market for recyclers looking to unload scrap plastic, and the industry did its best to make hay while the sun shined. Between 2010 and 2011 U.S. exports to China of “other” scrap plastic, a catch-all term that refers to a conglomerate of multiple resins in one box, polypropylene and other materials that fall into more than one category, regularly exceeded each of the four other types of plastics exports tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau, eventually hitting 526,898 tons in October 2012.

XCronin

Xavier Cronin

At that point, however, U.S. scrap plastic export volumes to China began a major dive that has yet to reverse itself, but in November 2012 it was easy to mistake the decline for the standard seasonal drop that recyclers had come to expect around the same time near the end of every year. “When we saw a drop off we thought ‘it’s November, of course there’s a drop off,’” said David Kaplan, formerly of Maine Plastics. “You don’t want to put anything in the water ahead of Chinese New Year,” he added, because millions of migrant Chinese workers go home for the New Year and many of China’s factories, recyclers included, go dark for 15 days, and what’s more is that many of the workers stay home, extending work delays for weeks. To account for this, U.S. exporters reduce their shipping volume ahead of the holiday. “The reason it didn’t gain attention at the end of 2012, ahead of the holiday season, export volumes always drop,” Kaplan said. “Nobody noticed it because they would’ve expected a decrease in exporting anyway.”

Declines in the months thereafter effectively killed any hopeful hypotheses that the November decline was just another seasonal reduction. That’s because October 2012’s reduction coincided with the institution of China’s “Green Fence,” a series of bureaucratic hurdles and newly-stringent regulations on what scrap plastic China would accept that has, and will continue, to complicate the business of exporting to China, a market that for many is too big to ignore, despite the regulations.

David Kaplan

David Kaplan

How the Green Fence came to be, however, offers an example of China’s political unpredictability that’s vital for every company in the recycling industry to understand. The Green Fence wasn’t written the night of Sept. 30 and instituted the following day. It was China’s decision to start enforcing  laws that it had previously chosen to ignore. “The green fence was the enforcement of laws that have been on the books for years,” Kaplan said. “The word enforcement is the key because [November 2012] was really when it started. It was the result    of a political move of the government to show that they were doing something about pollution issues in China. That is the general consensus; it’s not like the U.S. started shipping them anything different, they just enforced laws that had been on the books for years.”

“The data tells the story,” Cronin said. “The U.S. census shows that the scrap exports fell after the green fence enforcement bureaucracies went into effect. On the political side that’s a whole other conversation. Tomorrow they may decide to enforce a regulation from 1986.”

China’s sudden decision to start enforcing the laws that underpin the Green Fence suggests it’s anyone’s guess what China will choose to do or when they’ll choose to do it in the future. And what’s more is that China’s outsized influence on the recycling industry means that when it trains its regulatory eye on something, the whole world feels it. In many ways the Green Fence has both kept mixed scrap plastics out, and also fenced companies in from a revenue standpoint. Staying ahead of industry and regulatory trends, increasing the quality of exported material and exploring other alternative markets for scrap plastics to reduce China’s influence on your bottom line are all vital to growing business in today’s industry.

Join Cronin and Kaplan at their SPI Webinar on Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. EST to learn more about the Green Fence’s effect on the U.S. recycling industry and how your company can stay ahead of China’s unpredictable regulatory curve. Registration is free for SPI members.

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Plastic Bottles Shed Light on Needy Families

This article originally appeared on the Plastics Makes it Possible Facebook Page

In the impoverished neighborhoods in and around Manila, Philippines, millions of people live in darkness in their homes—even in the daytime. Electricity is often too expensive, and windows are a building expense that many cannot afford.

To change this, a local social entrepreneur has created a program calledPMIP Photo 73114
A Liter of Light that illuminates the homes of underprivileged families by creating solar-powered light bulbs from a resource some may find surprising: used plastic soft drink bottles.

Volunteers for A Liter of Light begin by gathering discarded, clear plastic bottles. The volunteers then fill each bottle with water and a few drops of chlorine bleach (to retard algae growth). They then fit the bottle snugly into a custom-cut hole in the roof of a home, with the bottom of the bottle extending down into the room below. This allows the clear plastic bottle and water to refract the sun’s rays and scatter light into the house. A silicone plastic sealant applied to the roof and bottle prevents water leaks during rainy tropical weather.

On a sunny day, this simple device can produce approximately 50 watts of light in an otherwise dark room.

Because plastics are lightweight and durable, the bottle lights are easy to install and are expected to last more than five years. And the materials to produce the lights cost very little—or nothing, in the case of discarded bottles gathered by volunteers—which makes it possible for A Liter of Light to help many, many people. The program envisions installing plastic bottle lights in one million homes by the end of 2012.

In an area in which some households earn less than a dollar a day, the plastic bottle lights reduce household expenses, as well as the fire hazards associated with faulty electrical wiring and candles. And when the lights need to be replaced, the plastic bottles can be recycled and new solar lights can be installed for little or no cost.

People often find creative ways to reuse plastic products. These new uses can be practical (such as reusing a plastic grocery bag as a trash can liner), or they can be fun (like making a Halloween costume out of plastic bottles). And sometimes, they can help improve people’s lives by creating a solution to a big problem—in this case, “a sustainable lighting project which aims to bring the eco-friendly bottle bulb to low-income communities nationwide.”