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.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

For Sorters’ Eyes Only: A Brief History of the RIC

Plastics recycling 25 years ago boiled down to two types of products: PET soda bottles and high-density (HDPE) milk jugs. But if the public, and the plastics industry, wanted to expand the plastics recycling effort, the first thing they needed was a good way to automatically identify the different plastic types.

“It was hoped that if a system was developed where the basic resin was marked on the container itself or on the articles that recyclers or sorters on the recycling line could actually identify those numbers and separate them into a variety of different bins,” said Thomas Pecorini, technology fellow at Eastman Chemical and chairman of ASTM Section D20.95.01 during a recent webinar hosted by the SPI Recycling Policy Subcommittee.

This desire gave birth to the modern resin identification code (RIC) system, created by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association in 1988 to help make it easier for sorters and recyclers to separate different types of materials into one of six (eventually seven) different, broadly-defined resin groups. The goal then was the same as it is now; to reduce waste and ensure that the recyclable plastics entering the municipal waste stream could be collected and given a second life. The question has become, is the RIC still a vehicle for achieving that goal?

Resin ID Code Triangles

The RIC.

What began as a tool to help sorters and recyclers, however, eventually grew to become one of the hardest aspects of plastics recycling for consumers to understand. A poll conducted by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and Earth911 between May and July found that consumers are easily confused when it comes to recycling plastics.

“With more and more plastic being produced, it’s essential that plastic products that have reached end of life enter the recycling stream,” said Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “As long as confusion reigns, consumers are apt to throw plastics away that should be recycled. This Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll demonstrates a strong need for additional education, particularly by municipalities, on what can be recycled and how to do it.” Among the poll’s findings was the fact that 65 percent of respondents answered that they don’t understand what is and what is not permissible when recycling plastics. Additionally, 17 percent of those consumers were most confused by the meaning of the recycling numbers, or resin identification codes (RICs).

The irony in the poll’s findings is that the RIC, created to facilitate recycling, might be making consumers less likely to recycle, simply by confusing them, but it’s important to remember that the RIC was never designed for consumers in the first place. “The RICs were never really intended to suggest that all items with a resin ID code are collected for recycling,” Pecorini said. “Moreover they were never actually meant to be used by the general public and the original system was meant to be an optional system.”

But the deceptive simplicity of the original RIC made it an obvious, although ultimately misleading education tool for municipalities hoping to outsource their sorting procedures to consumers themselves. “Municipal recycling programs tried to bring their sortation-at-home programs and they began informing the consumers that these RICs exist and used it as a public education tool to say if you had six bins in your garage you could self-sort all the different materials,” Pecorini said. “But unfortunately that also fell out of favor because the consumers didn’t want to spend that much time on recycling.”

The RIC’s legacy to the general public is the erroneous suggestion that the presence of a RIC number, surrounded by a chasing arrow, means that the item is automatically recyclable. “This has kind of created a series of problems,” Pecorini said.

As such, in 2008 SPI began working with ASTM to take control over the RIC and convert it to a globally-accepted standard that conveys more information about the material, but the process is a balancing act. Making changes to the labeling system too suddenly could negatively affect moldmakers, and adding too much information to further particularize one of the existing RICs could lead to situations like China’s where an explosion of different categories has given them a system with 140 numbers, as opposed to the RIC’s meager seven.

However, most can agree that replacing the RIC with a more productive 21st century counterpart will require more specifics to make collected articles easier to sort into recyclable groups, and that the RIC should not be used as a public education tool. But many other issues remain under consideration, and ASTM’s work will continue as they strive to set a standard that considers the needs of moldmakers, equipment manufacturers and processors as well as those of consumers. “What we see in recycling right now is transitions from a lot of consumer education and relying on the consumers to sort the material, to more automated sorting,” Pecorini said. “I personally would hope that someday we get to the point where we can tell consumers to just put all your plastics in a bin, and that may very well happen down the pike…but right now that isn’t in place.” That is certainly a vision that is shared by SPI.

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

One Pellet at a Time – OCS Makes a Difference Around the Globe

By Patty Long, SPI Vice President of Industry Affairs

By taking the Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) pledge, your company is contributing to preserving water quality and wildlife; making your workplace safer for employees; and keeping valuable economic resources where they belong. OCS’ mission is to prevent pellet loss during the use and transportation of materials.OCS logo

SPI and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) continue to encourage other companies to participate because they believe OCS guidelines should serve as best practices for every plastics company in the world. SPI and ACC offered plastics associations around the globe a royalty-free license to provide OCS tools to their members. In the past year, Denmark, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil have signed on to OCS bringing the total number of international plastics organizations using these tools to 12. In addition, SPI and ACC enacted a new supporter-member category for other plastics associations and brand owners to help in promoting OCS to their members, suppliers and customers. This expansion helps increase awareness of the pellet loss problem and helps brand the best practice.

SPI ‘s spring board meeting raised attention to the issue during a three-hour marine debris plenary session and voluntary beach cleanup. As part of the plenary, SPI highlighted research by the well-respected SEA Research Foundation that works closely with the Ocean Conservancy. SEA research recorded an 80 percent decrease in the concentration of pellets (measured from 1986 to 2010). Those dates coincide with SPI’s first efforts to raise awareness about this important issue. This reduction in the concentration of pellets could not have been achieved without the commitment of companies.

As SPI and ACC continue to promote the program and seek endorsements from other nongovernmental organizations and third parties, companies are encouraged to engage in the following steps.

  • Publicize your commitment to sustainable practices by:
    • Posting the OCS supporter logo on your website
    • Framing  and displaying your OCS member certificate in your lobby
    • Hanging your OCS flag where others can see it
    • Referencing OCS and your commitment to zero pellet loss in an upcoming company newsletter

If you do not have and would like these recognition materials, please email us at ocs@plasticsindustry.org.

  • Let us know how the tools are working for you and your employees. Would refresher webinars be helpful for plant managers?  If you’ve had success stories, would you be willing to share them with us?
  • Make sure that your customers and suppliers know about your membership in OCS. They will appreciate your commitment to sustainable practices.
  • If you belong to other plastics-related associations, encourage them to become a supporter member of OCS to help spread the word further.

Together, we are making a real difference! Taking the OCS pledge is the first step in preserving our rich marine environment.

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.”

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

State Department Tackles Marine Debris, Invites SPI into Discussion

By Mike Verespej, SPI Special Correspondent

The Our Oceans conference did more than just call attention to the need to protect the world’s oceans. It also made it clear that all countries and groups, including the plastics manufacturing industry, need to continue to be part of the solution.

“The ad hoc approach we have today with each nation and community pursuing its own independent policy simply will not suffice,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in his keynote address. “We are not going to meet this challenge unless … the entire world comes together to try to change course and protect the ocean from unsustainable fishing practices, unprecedented pollution, or the devastating effects of climate change.”Our Ocean

“There are a lot of challenges staring us in the face and we need to act on them,” said SPI president and CEO Bill Carteaux, who attended the invitation-only meeting this past June in Washington. “Getting the invitation to go was certainly a feather in our cap and recognition by the State Department that the plastics industry is not just part of the problem, but part of the solution, and needs to be in the discussion.”

Carteaux believes SPI’s presence at the conference will help develop relationships with non-government organizations (NGO) that might not have been otherwise possible.

“It has given us a platform to connect with NGOs and begin to develop projects with them,” he said. “We already have meetings set up with several NGOs. It is heartening to me that people want our help and want us to work with them.”

In addition, SPI and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) will meet this year with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to address marine debris issues.

More than 60 plastics associations representing 34 countries have more than 185 projects underway to address marine debris—part of an initiative that began in March 2011.

Those initiatives include the Operation Clean Sweep plastic pellet containment program that SPI and ACC have taken globally to 14 countries and

“It is still early, and no one has all the answers to tackling marine debris, but we are making progress,” said Carteaux. “One of the keys is to attack it and get people to dispose of things properly. A number of people at the conference came up to me and said ‘I’m glad you’re here because the plastics industry isn’t the problem, it’s an issue of people not disposing things properly.’”

“We want to push recycling and collection around the world, and push new uses for recycled material,” he said, “because if we do that, plastics won’t end up in wastewater and in oceans.”

Nestle Waters North America also believes “recycling is the cornerstone of sustainable packaging”—and solving the marine debris problem.

“Policy and action can work together to help advance stewardship of the oceans and all waterways,” said Brian Flaherty, vice president of public policy and external affairs for Nestle Waters North America, who addressed the issue of marine debris in a presentation at the conference. “We need to stop plastics from entering our oceans in the first place. The global challenge of marine debris that we are talking about here today is massive in scope. It is going to take all stakeholders coming together and making commitments to identify and implement solutions.

“The lessons we’ve learned are be humble, listen, learn and evolve,” said Flaherty. “Think big, take the first step and be transparent on how you’re doing.”

Carteaux said he walked away from the conference with at least three projects SPI can immediately work on:

  • Get other countries to allow the use of post-consumer recycled resin in food packaging, similar to the approach of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  • Campaign for tax credits for the use of recycled resin.  “If we can develop the markets, we can get the supply.”
  • Solve the challenge to recycling that comes from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles that have polypropylene caps.

“Addressing those things would have a significant impact on what’s going on and begin to solve some of the issues that lead to marine debris,” he said.