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Episode 118: NothingWasted! War on Plastics

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In our latest episode of NothingWasted!, we bring you a dynamic session from WasteExpo 2021, “War on Plastics.” The speakers dug into new plastics restrictions, the financial implications of recycling plastic, changing markets, infrastructure challenges and much more.

Panelists include Meghan Butler, Vice President & Chief of Staff, Recology, Inc.; Chaz Miller, CEO, Miller Recycling Associates; and Susan Robinson, Senior Director of Sustainability and Policy, Waste Management.

Here’s a sneak peek into the discussion:

What are your thoughts or your company’s plans regarding chemical recycling?

Miller: We still have yet to see if these systems work. I have a lot of hope for them. I don’t lose any sleep over the idea of non-mechanical recycling. If it works, that is absolutely great. I think, frankly, the biggest problem with these processes is not the technology per se; it’s the supply of raw materials. Where are we going to get it, and where are we going to get it so they can turn it into new products? And I think that’s the big question.

Butler: The jury’s still out on chemical recycling for us. It’s been something that has drastically increased in the conversation over the past three to five years; it’s something we’re interested in learning more about. Supply is for sure a concern. What do potential regional facilities look like? What is the yield of the process? Recology is always looking at the whole lifecycle of it, so what does it take to create, what are you getting, and is there a market? And there is something that needs to be done for the lighter, low-value plastics — so chemical recycling is something we’ll continue to keep our eye on.

What are your thoughts on flexible packaging going forward and the reduction in material density?

Butler: I’ve noticed the reduction in density coming up more and more often in conversations. We haven’t seen the end-all-be-all solution, but there has been a lot of talk around how can the producers and manufacturers of that type of product play a large part in the end-of-life recycling and processing — and I think the funding becomes a part of that. There is also a need for verifiable data.

There’s nothing new about light-weighting; it’s just picked up speed. There are limits to how much you can light-weight in a corrugated container because it has to meet certain tests to ensure it protects what is inside. But yes, light-weighting creates a real conundrum. Which is more important: fewer trucks on the road, or more recycling? We need to figure out: what are we trying to accomplish?

Robinson: I think it goes back to end-market demand and the cost. What is the value of the product? Is it worth it to invest in the technology to collect it and process it, and in what form? If we had an end market for flexible packaging, we’d probably pull it out. But we’re not going to get paid unless someone pays us for it, so we can’t separate that material until we have a market for it.

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