Engineering Polymers: Recycling and Post-Consumer Waste June 2013
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"After carbon and water, the drive is on to reduce the world's plastic footprint," according to the Plastic Ocean organization. According to a 2012 Petcore report, global recycling rates continued to rise in 2011, driven by various industries' demand for postconsumer plastic. Brazil led the way in recycling 57% of postconsumer PET packaging, equating to 294 000 tonnes in weight and a 4.25% increase in recycling from the previous year. Much of Brazil's demand for recycled-PET (rPET) is driven by the textile industry, which accounts for about 40% of the material's use, with packaging and chemical applications next in line, accounting for 18% each.
The United States also recorded a rise in the recycling rate of postconsumer PET packaging. According to a January 2013 National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) study, the recycling rate for single-serve PET water bottles in 2011 increased almost 20% from 2010 figures, to 38.6%, with about 500 million pounds of collected PET water bottles for recycling. The NAPCOR study also showed PET plastic water bottles were the most frequently recycled beverage container in residential recycling schemes.
Across the Atlantic in Europe, recycling rates also rose. According to the 2012 Petcore study, the recycling rates for PET bottles across the European Union stood at 51% in 2011, a rise of 9.4% from recycling rates in the previous year. Only three countries in the European Union had a recycling rate of less than 22.5%, which is the target set by the European Commission Packaging Waste Directive, and over a third of countries had collection rates over 70%.
Too Much Capacity?
Despite the increasing collection rates, the recycling industry in the United States and Europe is still struggling to reach full capacity. According to the European Plastics Recyclers association, Europe is using only 77% of the total capacity of its recycling plants. Recyclers fare even worse in the United States, where the PET-recycling capacity is nearly double the amount actually recycled "in country" in 2011.
One of the reasons behind this capacity glut is the rise in the number of PET-recycling plants in both Europe and the United States. According to NAPCOR, the number of PET-recycling plants in the United States rose from 19 to 23 in 2011, boosting the capacity by more than 27%, from 1.38 billion pounds to 1.76 billion pounds. Since 2011, PET-recycling companies have continued to add further capacity through the expansion of existing facilities and the building of new plants. For example, Mohawk Industries, a Fortune 500 company based in Summerville, Georgia, announced in May 2012 that it plans to double its reclaim capacity, which at present converts 14 000 bottles a minute into carpet fiber. According to NAPCOR, plans exist for a further four PET-recycling plants in the United States, which will add an additional 200 million pounds of capacity. The story is similar in Europe, with Continuum Recycling, a joint venture between Coca-Cola and ECO Plastics, building a £15 million state-of-the-art PET-recycling plant in Hemswell, England, in 2012. According to ECO Plastics, the plant, which is now operational, is responsible for processing over 50% of the United Kingdom's bottle-grade PET waste and has sorted over 250 million plastic bottles since opening.
Another reason for spare recycling capacity in the United States and Europe is that they both export much of what they collect to countries in Asia—predominantly to China. According to NAPCOR, 43% of the 1.6 billion pounds of collected PET in the United States in 2011 went for export, leaving approximately 916 million pounds for domestic recyclers. According to Auri Marcon, president of the Associação Brasileira dos Fabricantes de Embalagens de PET, one of the reasons Brazil's recycling rate is so much higher than that of other countries is that it doesn't export its municipal waste for recycling. Although limiting the amount of PET sent for export would help domestic recyclers in the United States and Europe, NAPCOR also noted that even if no postconsumer PET in the United States went for export, capacity would still be approximately 10% more than what is reclaimed. Therefore, organizations need to do more to encourage and provide incentive to individuals and households to recycle more of their waste if they are to use their full recycling capacities.
Educate, Provide Incentive, Assist
Key to increasing collection and recycling rates is to educate consumers proactively about what waste is recyclable, the process of recycling, and what happens to the recycled product postconsumer. Around the world, schools and colleges often act as a platform for educating young consumers about the environmental impact of products and packaging. In 2013 in the United States, 523 colleges and universities participated in Recyclemania, a nationwide recycling competition, which participating universities govern. The University of Missouri in Kansas City won the 2013 competition with a recycling rate of 86%, collecting 212 973 pounds of postconsumer recyclable waste in a ten-week period. According to Recyclemania, the energy saving from recycling this waste into rPET equates to approximately 360 tonnes of CO2 equivalent or 71 cars off the road or the energy consumption of 31 households. In total, the scheme has managed a reduction of 121 436 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2013, as of 12 April. After the competition period, the participating colleges and universities sign up to certain pledges, hoping to build on their achievements. These pledges can range from using the savings in disposal costs that the university has accumulated to fund further waste-reduction initiatives to creating active programs to educate employees and students about waste-minimization practices.
Educating consumers about recycling does not come just from voluntary recycling schemes. The bottling industry is a vital part of the cycle and is also invested in its success. In recognition of this fact, Arrowhead, a US brand of Nestlé Waters, launched a new half-liter, single-serve water bottle in November 2012, made with 50% rPET. This composition reduces the amount of higher-cost virgin plastic in the bottle, reducing production costs, as well as raising awareness of recycling with consumers. Arrowhead has also teamed up with Keep California Beautiful, an organization that helps promote recycling education. Although consumers often view the marketing of environmental credentials with a certain degree of cynicism, Arrowhead is proactively attempting to raise awareness of recycling, which will undoubtedly have a greater impact than the standard transparent recycling labels at the bottom of plastic containers. Arrowhead also claims that the new bottle uses 15% less energy to manufacture than is necessary to produce a bottle from 100% virgin PET.
An effective recycling system also needs the backing of proactive municipal authorities, because significant investments are often necessary to boost a town or city's recycling rates. For many years, New York has been one of the worst recycling-performing cities in North America, with a paltry recycling rate of just 15%. In some parts of the city—such as East Harlem—recycling rates are as low as 9%. In response to these recycling rates, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to double the city's recycling rates by 2017 and hopes that New York could eventually become one of the leading US cities for recycling. A key part of this vision is a $180 million recycling plant due to open in mid-2013.
In Houston, Texas, local authorities are installing recycling systems similar to those already in place in the United Kingdom and Germany, which increase the amount of collected recyclables by using high-tech sorting systems to separate out valuable commodities from a single waste stream. The Houston "One Bin for All" program aims to increase the city's recycling rate and will also be accompanied by an educational program.
Effective solutions to increasing recycling rates can also come from collaborative efforts between industry and local authorities. For example, in April 2013, Coca-Cola announced it was awarding a grant of $2.59 million to Keep America Beautiful, a US recycling body, for the expansion of the Chicago, Illinois, curbside-recycling program. Coca-Cola will make the grant available to the Chicago authorities in the next five years and allow an additional 25 000 households to recycle.
Barriers to Recycling
Although the global recycling rate of postconsumer PET packaging is continuing to rise, a number of issues are currently threatening to stall further progress. For example, product manufacturers are often reluctant to back certain recycling initiatives—such as bottle-deposit schemes. In March 2013 in Australia, Coca-Cola, Schweppes, and Lion won a court battle against a state-government-backed 10-cent bottle-refund program. Coca-Cola reasoned that deposit schemes are an inefficient and expensive way to improve recycling. However, Sumofus.org, an environmental-campaign group, argues that bottle-deposit schemes increase recycling rates by up to 30%.
Although many universities and colleges in the United States are actively participating in recycling schemes—such as Recyclemania—a growing practice among some is simply to ban the sale or restrict the use of bottled water. According to a March 2013 article in Bloomberg, more than 90 US universities and colleges—including Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Brown—are actively participating in the ban. The universities are now providing students with stainless-steel bottles and encouraging the use of hydration stations throughout campuses. The universities advocating the ban point to the environmental benefits—such as reducing campus waste and the need to transport bottles across the country. The town of Concord, Massachusetts, also decided to go the way of a ban, becoming the first town in the United States to ban the sale of bottled water in units of less than 1 liter from 1 January 2013. One significant flaw in these bans is that the restrictions cover still-water bottles only. The bans' opponents—such as the International Bottled Water Association—point out that the bans may be driving people to consume more carbonated soft drinks and other less-healthful alternatives. These bans also do not stop people from simply driving down the road to the next town to do their shopping. Although restrictions on single-serve water bottles may reduce the amount of waste within these small communities, they may also be detrimental to promoting the recycling of other products and further diminish the flow of material to an already undercapacity recycling industry.
The light weight of PET containers also presents another challenge for the recycling industry. According to the BMC, in the past 11 years the average weight of a half-liter single-serve PET plastic water bottle has dropped by 47.8% to 9.9 g. Although this weight reduction has resulted in a saving of 3.3 billion pounds of PET resin in the United States since 2000 and has significantly reduced the environmental footprint of the bottling industry, it has meant that recyclers now face the task of collecting nearly twice as many bottles for the same weight of PET. Recyclers are also facing higher transportation costs because a truck full of bottles now renders less rPET product.
Although many companies are betting big on a continued and sustained demand for rPET, doubts remain about the long-term profitability of running recycling plants substantially below maximum capacity. If margins tighten further, recyclers may need to increase the price of rPET, potentially eroding some of its competitiveness against virgin-grade PET. Local authorities may also decide to pass the cost of disposal onto households and consumers through taxation or other means if they cannot secure a higher enough price for their waste. Such actions could provoke further consumer led bans, which may further weaken the supply of postconsumer waste. Recycled PET may also face growing competition from bioplastics, which may also be accentuated by potential future legislation on biobased content.