Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Wisconsin Sees Economic Gains, New Jobs in Recycling Plastics

Taking a more practical approach to the related problems of waste and litter than such pseudo-solutions as banning plastic bags and bottles, or the New York City mayor’s intention to ban polystyrene foam food service containers, the State of Wisconsin has found that it could boost the state economy, including creation of new jobs, “…by recycling more of the valuable plastics that currently end up in its landfills…”

The quote is from an article in the Weekly News of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that describes the results of a study commissioned by the DNR and authored jointly by Foth Infrastructure and Environment (Green Bay, WI) and Moore Recycling Associates (Sonoma, CA). Here are the opening words of the executive summary of the Wisconsin Plastics Recycling Study:

The Wisconsin Plastics Recycling Study identifies 40 specific actions for improving plastics recycling in the state.

The Wisconsin Plastics Recycling Study identifies 40 specific actions for improving plastics recycling in the state.

Imagine if Wisconsin’s citizens regularly threw away dollar bills in their garbage, and those dollar bills were taken to landfills and permanently buried in mountains of waste. We would surely react by saying “Please, separate out those dollar bills from your garbage and spend them at Wisconsin businesses.” Those businesses would be only too glad to put those recovered dollars to immediate and productive use in the economy. This would create jobs and help the economy grow.

This scenario is a very close analogy to what is actually happening in Wisconsin with respect to used plastics. Used plastics have real monetary value to processors and manufacturers within Wisconsin. Yet despite a comprehensive statewide recycling program and a strong recycling ethic, hundreds of tons of valuable plastics are sent to Wisconsin landfills every day. The market value of used plastics sent to the landfill in 2009 alone was about $64 million.

The DNR initiated the study to identify actions that can be taken now to capture and recycle more used plastics in Wisconsin. Here are the actions identified:

  • Double the tonnage of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) available to processors and manufacturers.
  • Increase by a factor of 10 or more the tonnage of film plastics, including plastic bags, recovered for recycling.
  • Substantially increase recycling of non-bottle rigid plastic containers and other rigid plastics, particularly those with higher market value such as PET, HDPE, and polypropylene (PP).
  • Extract value from truly non-recyclable plastics by salvaging them for energy recovery.

The study identifies specific strategies that could increase the tonnage of plastics recovered by 100,000 tons annually and stimulate job growth by several hundred new jobs. Cynthia Moore, the DNR recycling program coordinator said, “In addition to the benefits to businesses and employment, increasing plastics recycling would provide environmental benefits by prolonging the life of landfills and reducing pollution.”

The DNR will conduct a pilot program this spring to expand recycling of flexible film packaging in cooperation with the American Chemistry Council’s Flexible Film Recycling Group and the GreenBlue Foundation’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

Wisconsin has had strong recycling activity for years, including a comprehensive recycling law widely supported by both citizens and the state legislature whose key feature is a series of disposal and incineration bans on many materials, including plastic containers. The state has 85 registered materials recovery facilities (MRFs) that collectively recovered and marketed 34,000 tons of plastic containers in 2010.

According to the study, Wisconsin’s secondary plastics sector is constrained mostly by a lack of assured supply. Increasing the recovery rate of used plastics is the cure for that, and in turn it should produce economic growth including new jobs.

While other U.S. states and municipalities continue to focus on creating bans and levying taxes in the vain hope of coping with plastic waste and litter, Wisconsin expands the reach of its plastic recycling efforts to stop wasting a valuable resource and to strengthen the state’s economy. The other 49 states should be taking notes, likewise the District of Columbia.

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