Friday, June 26th, 2015

Hispaniola Sustainability Forum Enlists Plastics, Recycling Industries in Effort to Solve Environmental Problems in Developing Countries

Spend all the money you’d like on machinery, collection bins and other pieces of recycling infrastructure; they won’t be worth much if people don’t fill them with recyclable products. The culture of recycling can often be as important as the infrastructure that supports it, and while here in the U.S. we have both, in other nations, they have neither.

DRBeachPhotoThat’s a problem that Jesús D’Alessandro, a sustainability researcher for the Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE) and director of the Foro Hispaniola de Sostenibilidad (FHS), is trying to bring his colleagues together to solve. “I lived in Japan for nearly four years,” he said, “and it was great to see that everyone cooperates. You have schedules issued by the municipalities and you have the days when the garbage is going to be collected, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET), glass and metals. You have to actually wash the recyclables, classify them and keep them at home until the truck comes along. It is a great example of community cooperation.”

The achievement of this level of awareness and cooperation between citizens and the public and private forces that enable this system to work is a result of a long-lasting social cohesion process in Japan, according to D’Alessandro, who noted that in his home country of the Dominican Republic, that process is only just beginning. “The work of educating the society on these basic sustainable development concepts here hasn’t yet been done with the appropriate level of seriousness,” he said.

In October D’Alessandro and other thought leaders from the region will gather for this year’s FHS. SPI first participated in last year’s edition and will be participating again this year in the shared hope that collaboration can help solve what’s both a dire situation in Hispaniola and a great opportunity—in the case of plastic waste management—for the plastics and recycling industries to crowdsource a solution to the island’s waste woes. “There are efforts from the government, but the government alone is not enough: there has to be collaboration from society,” D’Alessandro said. “We wish to integrate everyone into a single platform; everyone together dealing with these issues in real time, which is part of the virtue of the project. It’s an open platform for innovative ideas around sustainable development” that, D’Alessandro and SPI hope, can create a model for other developing nations to successfully manage their waste and recycling issues through the power of collaboration between governments, companies and thought leaders.

According to D’Alessandro, SPI’s participation is particularly valuable because of the depth of the plastic waste problem on Hispaniola (which consists of the Dominican Republic on the eastern half of the island, and Haiti on the west). “Dealing with plastics here is a big issue. Although the collecting industry has grown, there’s still very little collecting and recycling in comparison to our volumes of consumption, which makes it a huge environmental problem right now,” D’Alessandro said. “Unrecycled PET is a great problem here precisely because most of the bottles are of PET resin,” he added, noting that the transient nature of the plastic bottle adds to the problem, particularly when it’s used so frequently in a country that lacks both a culture of recycling and the infrastructure to support it. “The bottle is the item with the shortest service life, particularly the 20-ounce PET bottle. It’ll last in your hand for as little as a minute and a half,” D’Alessandro said. “That is why we have tons on the streets and, of course, there are other types of plastic packaging wasted as well, but the vast majority has longer service life and less demand.”

As any consumer in the U.S. is probably aware, PET is an extremely recyclable material, but again, in the presence of a lot of PET bottles, and in the absence of a recycling culture and recycling infrastructure, the problem has festered, creating both an environmental threat and other economic pressures on local companies and the state. “If there is no culture of recycling, and particularly a culture of classifying the garbage at home, you put all of those costs on the state, and of course the state is already struggling to face other domestic challenges,” D’Alessandro said. “We’re fostering a huge environmental problem and the state will not be able to handle it on its own. In fact, it’s not supposed to do it alone. Our generation is going to have to aid the process.”FHSLogo

The size of the problem in Hispaniola is matched only by the size of the opportunity it presents to industry and sustainability-minded policymakers and residents. Investments in technology and infrastructure on the island will go a long way toward ensuring Hispaniola isn’t consumed by a wave of PET bottles, but securing those investments, no matter how much we take them for granted here in the U.S., will require collaboration. “We’re missing an opportunity, while creating and sustaining an environmental problem,” D’Alessandro said. “We have the challenge to grasp the problem from a systemic perspective, and educate normal people about this issue.”

With any luck, D’Alessandro hopes the collaborative solutions discussed and implemented at this year’s FHS will spread beyond the shores of Hispaniola. “We wish to do this every year as long as it is possible, and so far it has been of interest to many people,” he said. “The goal is to gather everyone at a single table to discuss the challenges of society, and become a reference point for other societies in other places where this is a challenge,” a worthy goal, and one that fits firmly within SPI and the plastics industry’s pursuit of zero waste.

For more information of FHS, or to attend, visit their Facebook page here.

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Moving Beyond What’s Easy: Compatibilizer Report from SPI Aims to Improve Quality of Recycled Plastics, Enhance Chemical Skill Set throughout Recycling Value Chain

Plastic scrapThe plastics recycling industry presently faces an environment of lower bale quality and lower yields. It also faces increasing demand for post-consumer recycled material, right at a time when providing that material is especially complicated and costly. Rather than waiting around for bale quality to increase on its own (or for MRFs to place a greater priority on better sorting), recyclers need to become more sophisticated in order to adjust their operations to suit a new normal.

The problem of processing contaminated materials like bales of mixed multi-layer consumer plastic packaging is a chemical one, and so it makes sense to attempt to address it with a chemical solution. But chemistry, at least at the moment, isn’t a strong suit for most recyclers. “SPI is supported by polymer, additive, and machinery makers,” said Sal Monte, president of Kenrich Petrochemicals, a member of SPI’s Recycling Committee. “There are hundreds of different kinds of polymers/processes and their subset applications that all have different functions and market applications, but the recyclers who collect that plastic until recently have not had to operate at that level.”

“Most of the guys who deal with recycle are not chemists,” he added. “If they want to make useful parts that give recycled plastic a second life on a first-tier level, recyclers are going to have to become more knowledgeable about polymer material science.”

compatibilizers-whitepaper-coverEducation and innovation are key to raising the bar for the entire recycling value chain, and a new report, titled “Compatibilizers: Creating New Opportunity for Mixed Plastics,” is the SPI Recycling Committee’s latest attempt to challenge recyclers to move beyond what’s easy and push the entire recycling value chain forward in a way that yields new applications and new value for mixed post-consumer recycled plastics.

Broadly speaking, compatibilizers are additives that get incompatible polymers to “talk” to one another. They’ve historically been used successfully in both the prime resin industry and in the post-industrial plastics recycling arena to increase the value of bales comprised of select mixed polymers, but their use in the post-consumer world has been limited. That’s what the Recycling Committee’s report aims to change. It introduces readers and recyclers to the opportunities these additives present to their business, and to the economic imperative these companies have to find new solutions in a world where the process of recycling plastic materials is only getting more and more complicated.

“Recent findings suggest HDPE recyclers are suffering a 20-percent yield loss, while their PET recycling counterparts are experiencing upwards of 40-percent yield loss,” the report says. “This rate of material loss can quickly change the economics of an operation from black to red. If that yield loss could be put to use as another valuable feed stream, it can dramatically change the economics of an operation, as well as further divert valuable plastics from the landfill.” Compatibilizers are one option recyclers can consider in their efforts enhance their profits while meeting their sustainability goals.

They can also enable the right recyclers with the right expertise to find new markets for their materials by allowing them to impart more desirable qualities to the recycled resin they produce. Incompatible polymers that are recycled can’t be used practically since they delaminate during melt processing such as injection molding to make a PCR containing plastic product. Virgin polymers are also chain scissored during melt processing, giving the resultant post-consumer recycled resin lesser mechanical properties when compared to virgin resin. This limits these materials’ usage in all kinds of applications requiring performance specification polymers.

In essence, compatibilizers enable resins that would not otherwise neatly blend into a useful melt of plastic materials to mix in such a way that the recycled resins acquire greater performance qualities than if the compatibilizer hadn’t been included. They have the potential to give streams of recycled plastic the qualities they require to be more useful, if not as useful as their virgin forefathers, and therefore much more valuable. “The use of compatibilizers is being explored increasingly in the recycling industry as a way to create value in mixed feed streams that cannot be further segregated by resin type, either due to technical challenges related to collecting, cleaning and sorting, or economic infeasibility,” the report observes.

There’s a sort of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” simplicity to using compatibilizers to enhance the value of recycled materials—if you can’t fix bale quality, find a way to make bale quality matter less. But post-consumer recycling isn’t getting simpler; it’s getting more and more complex. To succeed in this environment, the recycling industry has to become more, not less, sophisticated. The Recycling Committee’s report is geared toward challenging recyclers to take their first step in that direction.

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

SPI Recognizes CPR for Its Outstanding Performance as the Official Recycler of NPE2015

NPE2015 ended nearly three months ago but SPI continues to recognize all of the parties that helped make this year’s international plastics showcase the largest, most international and most sustainable NPE in history. Recently SPI CEO and President Bill Carteaux and VP of Member Services Mark Garrison visited the Tampa, Fla.-based offices of Commercial Plastics Recycling, Inc. (CPR) to present the company and its team with a plaque recognizing them for their partnership and performance during NPE2015.

CPRVisit_Group_BlogSize

CPRVisit_BlogSize

During the show, which ran from March 23-27 in Orlando, Fla., CPR collected, sorted and recycled an astounding 191 tons of processing scrap, 62 percent more than was collected at NPE2012 and 235 percent more than at NPE2009. Altogether NPE2015 generated 518 tons of waste at the Orange County Convention Center, including both processing scrap and post-consumer waste. Of that, 452 tons, or 87 percent, was recycled.

SPI thanks CPR for its outstanding work during NPE2015 and looks forward to relying on the company’s insights to make the next NPE (NPE2018) an even greater success!

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Turning the Tide on Plastic Bag Bans and Taxes

Over the last 10 years environmental activists have attempted to portray plastic bag bans and taxes as good for the environment. And until recently, they have been successful in their efforts to promote bag bans and taxes, because their claims haven’t been subjected to scrutiny. That’s why the APBA exists: to provide the facts and reveal the activists’ claims to be what they really are—myths.

apba-logoEdgeThere’s a reason that activists have pursued bag bans and taxes at the state and local levels. It’s because these municipal governing bodies historically have less time and energy to spend delving into the unexpected consequences of a certain act or ordinance—operating, in the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, as “laboratories of democracy” and enacting experimental policies.

This type of legislation serves a vital purpose in American democracy, but there is a side effect. It is that bad policies often get passed without the appropriate questions being asked, and environmental activists have taken advantage of this fact. Based on the erroneous and wholly baseless assumption that all plastics are bad—and hinging on the equally false misconception that plastic bags are a major component of litter, state and local legislators have been persuaded by environmental activists to enact policies based on these misguided principles.

There are four questions every state and local legislature should ask about any proposed policy, questions that would reveal the hollow core at the heart of every argument in favor of a plastic bag ban or tax: Is this necessary? Will this be effective? Is this popular? What will be the outcome?

Is this necessary?

Plastic bags traditionally constitute about one percent of litter in most of the U.S. and, according to the EPA, represent only 0.4 percent of the municipal waste stream. No amount of litter is acceptable, but it is crucial that legislators understand that plastic bags are not a significant component of litter and that this is a behavioral rather than material issue. A smarter policy approach would be to educate consumers to change their behavior rather than to unfairly target a single recyclable material. Further, the fact that plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable makes it hard to argue that banning or taxing them is necessary. An effective end-of-life solution already exists.

Will this be effective?plastic shopping bags in use

Because plastic bags are a fraction of litter and an even smaller component of the municipal waste stream, any attempt to ban or tax them is unlikely to move the needle on litter or landfills. Why use a sledgehammer when a scalpel will do? If state and local legislators are serious about promoting thoughtful and effective environmental policy, they can organize litter cleanups and promote recycling and recycling education. Bag bans and taxes don’t work. The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from Huntington Beach, California proves this, and that’s why the city repealed its ordinance.

Is this popular?

Ask any of the many municipalities (Homer, Alaska; Basalt, Snowmass, Durango and Fort Collins, Colorado; Darien, Connecticut and Newport, Oregon) that have reversed their ordinances following public input or outcry. Or, look at the disastrous implementation of Dallas’ bag tax and the opinions of residents frustrated by the city’s hastily-enacted and poorly-considered regulation. You also could look to the reaction to California’s statewide bag ban: in less than 90 days the APBA collected the signatures of over 800,000 of California voters who oppose the legislation. In general, plastic bag bans and taxes aren’t popular.

The Anacostia River

The Anacostia River

What is the outcome?

As the Washington Post recently reported, the government of the District of Columbia has made about $10 million in revenue from its bag tax. It is clear that the revenue generated is not going to serve the stated purpose of the ordinance. Funds have been used to pay for things like field trips and personnel expenses instead of on Anacostia River cleanup. And there are other unintended consequences of bag bans and taxes: numerous cities with ordinances have seen an uptick in reported theft from stores; trash bag purchases tend go up in municipalities with ordinances because people can’t reuse their plastic retail bags; according to the NCPA, commerce is displaced from businesses operating in areas with plastic bag bans and taxes to businesses operating just outside of the perimeter that still offer plastic bags at no cost; and, reusable bags largely go unwashed and thereby transmit infectious foodborne diseases. All of these are outcomes of bag bans and taxes, and there’s no actual reduction in litter or a change in the makeup of local landfills.

Conclusions

When plastic bag bans and taxes were first promoted by activists, few legislators asked the right questions. But now state and local governments and the media are beginning to push back, and the tide is turning against bans and taxes.  That’s what SPI and the APBA have been saying all along: that plastic bag bans and taxes are not thoughtful or effective environmental policies, and we’re glad others are seeing the light.

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Student Perspectives on Plastic Film and Bag Recycling from the SPI/JASON Learning “Think Outside the Bag!” Contest

JASONLogoOf all the excellent material in the more than 100 entries received as part of SPI and JASON Learning’s recently-concluded “Think Outside the Bag!” contest, the “What We Learned” or “Challenges We Faced” slide (or some variant thereof) that was included in each of the submitted presentations might be the most illuminating for the plastics industry at large.

Hosted by SPI’s Flexible Film and Bag Division, the “Think Outside the Bag!” competition challenged young people to get creative by designing a poster and a public awareness campaign that aimed to get their fellow students, schools and communities involved in collecting and recycling plastic bags and other flexible plastic film products. It also asked participating students to discuss what they learned in the process, and to identify the challenges they faced in trying to get people to recycle their plastic films and bags. Across the three participating grade bands (K-4, 5-8, 9-12) some similar insights and challenges kept coming up.spi_logo_2000x1007

“The people we knew were most supportive.”

The wisdom of the “Think Globally, Act Locally” mantra proved itself once again in the “Think Outside the Bag!” contest, as most participants found the most support closest to home. Whether it was their classmates, their parents, their friends or whomever, most entries found reaching out and asking the people they knew to help out to be a simple, effective start. It’s a testament to the power of starting locally, and also a testament to how infectious the recycling mentality can be. All it takes is one ardent recycler to turn the residents of an entire household into advocates, and that’s a powerful thing to remember.

“We found out that most plastic films are from things that we do not expect like bread bags or newspaper bags or even the container around salad.”

Participating students learned a great deal about plastics from the contest, most notably the fact that bags aren’t the only plastic films that are recyclable. Of the students that knew bags were recyclable, it seemed that not as many of them knew that food and product wrapping and other items fell into the same category.

Recycled plastic bags image“It wasn’t as easy as we thought to convince some people that recycling plastic bags is important.”

Most of the participating students cited concern for the environment as a major reason why they felt plastic film and bag recycling was such a worthy cause. Nonetheless, getting people on board with how vital the recycling process is wasn’t as simple a process as some students hoped or expected. Many of the entries relied on their poster to make their environmental message as clearly as possible, and aimed to inspire people to think about their use of plastic films and bags in order to reduce litter and make a meaningful impact on the environment.

“After some brainstorming we started presenting the poster to our families, showing them the process and specifically that plastic bags and plastic film COULD be recycled.”

Not-so-simply put, it’s hard to get people to recycle something when they don’t know that the thing you want them to recycle is recyclable.

The most basic, fundamental challenge that students encountered that could be keeping plastic film and bag recycling rates mired around 12 percent is the fact that, across the country, a lot of people still don’t think plastic bags or films are even recyclable. More than 90 percent of the nation has access to plastic film and bag recycling (most commonly through a retail take-back program), but this myth still exists.

Having to essentially educate fellow students, friends, family and community members and business leaders about the recyclability of these materials was a common refrain in terms of the biggest hurdles the students faced in their efforts, with some participants saying that conducting their campaign was a two-step process: first they had to get the hang of teaching people, then they had to actually present their awareness campaign.

In short, the students had to educate themselves before they educated their families and friends, and once they did it seemed that simply knowing that plastic films and bags were recyclable went a long way toward getting someone to actually change their behavior, and go through the process of recycling these materials.

See the winning entries on SPI’s website here and JASON’s website here.