Plastics continue to flood the waste stream, yet not nearly enough is returned to manufacturers for them to crank out their products at capacity. Instead, volumes of the would-be valuable commodity are stockpiling at landfills.

One problem is that processing some postconsumer resins can be a lot of work, often with little to no return. And another is that packaging continues to evolve, posing technical challenges to recyclers.

To tackle these issues, the plastics and solid waste and recycling industries have joined forces to devise best practices. Among the outcomes of those efforts is an innovative way to deal with foam polystyrene. There are also now incentives to encourage MRFs to process more quality PET. And stakeholders are assessing technologies to handle flexible film without having to overhaul existing MRF infrastructures.

The PET challenge

“It’s highly recyclable and collected in almost every recycling program in the country, yet the recycling rate for PET is about 31 percent. Even if every container in the U.S. was recycled, it still would not meet demand,” says Resa Dimino director, public policy for NAPCOR, the trade association for the North American PET industry.

(Dimino will speak on a Waste360 Recycling Summit panel on “Market Updates and Packaging Evolution” on Tuesday, Sept. 20. She will be joined by Jordan Tony of Moore Recycling Associates and Emily Tipaldo of the American Chemistry Council (ACC). The session will be moderated by Michael Timpane of RRS) 

The limited supply correlates with declining quality. So PET reclaimers buy more, mainly from MRFs, to produce the same marketable volume as before, and invest more in cleaning and processing, as other materials end up in their stream.

NAPCOR and the Association of Plastic Recyclers have developed a bale specification mechanism and protocol for measuring PET in a bale.

“It’s a model driven by the idea that if you give clear guidance on investing in improving bale quality, the market can respond,” says Dimino.

Dealing with what’s fairly new

NAPCOR is also exploring viable approaches for thermoform used for example in cups and clam shells. While most recycling systems can sort PET bottles, thermoform is heavier and flatter and labels have aggressive adhesives, features which present processing issues.

“Most PET recyclers buying curbside material can process thermoform at some level. So we are moving in the right direction, but it’s challenging,” says Dimino.

Film to corner the market

PE film production is set to increase in the U.S. over the coming years due to an advantageous energy market and manufacturing capabilities, according to Tipaldo, director, plastics packaging and consumer products with the ACC.

Film has upstream sustainability benefits. It requires little material, and because it’s light weight, shipping and distribution require less gas and energy.

“But film can pose mechanical and safety challenges in MRFs. It has mixed with paper; it gets wrapped around disc screens, and employees have to cut this stuff out directly on the screens, which presents a hazard,” says Tipaldo.

U.K.-based REFLEX, a collaboration between global brands, is assessing whether radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology can effectively separate film from other materials. And Materials Recovery for the Future has done MRF trials that conclude that, with adequate screening and optical sorting capacity, most flexibles in a single-stream facility may potentially be captured. 

Plans are to launch a pilot at a MRF exploring cost for equipment retrofits and to determine what level of investment will equal what level of recovery. Then the focus will turn to identifying end markets and laying out a business case for investments in upgraded systems.

“We still need to focus on collection. This research is only focused on sortation, and more fine-tuning needs to be done. But I say we are onto something,” says Tipaldo.

A gap between capacity to reclaim HDPE and supply

Brand companies are using less HDPE as they go to lightweight pouches and condensed detergents. Still, it consistently has market value, says Tony, a research associate at Moore Recycling Associates.

“PRFs are helping increase supply by buying mixed bales from MRFs, and mining out polypropylene and HDPE,” he says.

Turning foam polystyrene into cash

Because of its low density, foam has historically required a lot of space to transport in sufficient volume. But it is now being ground and pressed into blocks.

You can fit 40,000 pounds of densified polystyrene on a trailer, which is on par with other plastics, Tony says, of what he describes as a versatile material, used in products from picture frames to surfboards.

“There are 424 foam polystyrene drop-off and curbside points in the U.S.,” he says. So it is a growing trend, and the technology is helping to drive this.”