Commentary: It’s time for federal help for U.S. recycling industry

Dec. 8, 2020
The U.S. needs a national framework for collection of plastics, standards for bales collected, better recycling technology, standards for recycled resin and a robust market for recycled resin.

The federal government has let down the plastics recycling industry. 

The 2020 election drew scant attention to plastics recycling, leaving industry insiders to speculateover how the meager legislation already in Congress would fare if one party controlled the presidency, U.S. House and Senate, or if control weresplit.As of this writing a few days after Election Day, itlooks like control will be split.

My complaint is that Congress should have aggressively helped the U.S. recycling industry much earlier and with more decisive action than what it has done and is currently considering. In other words, we should be well past this point. 

Our fragile recycling system experienced a hiccup in 2018 when China stopped accepting collected plastic that U.S. reprocessors did not want. China and other Asian countries were convenient dumping places and generated revenue for the plastic debris we did not want to bother with. It has been a painful process for some parts of the recycling industry to adapt to this new reality. 

A press release from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in mid-October caused me to start thinking about the bigger picture. DOE announced it was providing $27 million to 12 projects researching advanced plastics recycling technologies. The grants went to nine university research projectsthe Battelle Memorial Institute, IBM Almaden Research Center anLanzaTech Inc., a company that captures industrial carbon emissions and converts them into a new fuel source, such as ethanol. 

DOE said in a press release that the grants come through the Plastics Innovation Challenge, a program it started last year as a “comprehensive strategy to develop advanced plastics recycling technologies and manufacture new plastics that are recyclable by design. Last yearit made grants totaling $35 million to support research in recycling plastics, metals, electronic waste and fibers.  

Let’s not get too excited about $27 millioneven though everything helps. 

The U.S. recycling industry needs a national framework for collection, standards for bales collected, better recycling technology, standards for recycled resin and a robust market for recycled resin. That includes everything from taking some initiatives out of the hands of local governments that are woefully ill-positioned to support and fund broad, multijurisdictional programs that benefit the greater good, to forcing OEMs to add recycled content to their products. 

What we need is a federal recycling agency or at least a functioning national regulatory body with power to remove roadblocks in the recycling chain.    

My hometown won’t voluntarily collect plastic bags or film or PS or anything it cannot profitably pass up the recycling chain. The same holds true for most towns. That means they have to be incentivized or required to collect difficult-to-process plastics.  

My town and your town are not likely to change their practices under the current system, so a lot of plastic does not get collected. 

You can identify roadblocks all along the chain. There is no standard that limits how much non-PET is allowed in a bale of PET. The recycler frequently must rely on his experience with the source who provides his bales. 

The recycler also is very much at the mercy of a quirky market when selling recycled resin. When virgin resin prices are low, recyclers are forced to sell at prices that might not even support their costs. 

Most brand owners are reluctant to include recycled resin in their products, so there is not a robust, dependable market for recycled flakes or pellets.  

There was a recent report about success in using recycled resin in road construction. That could create a huge market, but don’t hold your breath waiting on federal and state regulations to change to allow it. 

What would a federal recycling agency cost? There is no way for me to put a price tag on a program to overhaul the entire recycling chain, but it would cost considerably more than $27 million. 

But consider the benefits. More plastics would be collected for reuse instead of ending up in landfills or worse, into the environment. Brokers and recyclers could buy collected material with confidence that they were getting what they were paying for. More research would improve recycling technology so there would no longer be difficult-to-recycle plastics. Mandates would mean more products would contain recycled plastics, creating a more robust material market.    

We should not have to wait on political whims to move recycling forward. A thriving, comprehensive recycling system would be great for our economy and environment. Reusing plastic over and over is a no-brainer and should not be wishful thinking. 

Ron Shinn, editor 

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