Improve Municipal Plastic Recycling Programs with These Free ResourcesPrint
The global recycling market is changing rapidly, and that can leave municipal plastic recycling programs struggling to find enough end users to stay in business. More than ever, post-consumer plastics are competing with virgin resins. This, in turn, is placing new pressures on materials recovery facilities (MRF) and the municipalities that hire them to produce pristine bales of reclaimed plastics; high levels of contamination are no longer acceptable.
The good news is that there are plenty of resources available that can boost clean recycling in residential programs. Even better, these resources are free of charge. In this article, we'll examine the state of the recycling market, focusing especially on the changes that have led to calls for cleaner plastic bales. Then we'll describe the best resources available to improve the quality of every bale that comes out of the local MRF.
The Rising Demand for Quality in the Recycling Industry
In order to understand the new insistence on unpolluted bales of reclaimed plastic, it's important to study the plastics recycling life cycle. Let's take a plastic water bottle, for instance. There are essentially five steps in the bottle's post-use life:
- The bottle is tossed into a recycling dumpster or a curbside bin for collection.
- Haulers transport the bottle — along with other recyclables — to the local single-stream MRF, where a combination of mechanical and manual sorting adds the bottle to a collection of others just like it.
- These plastic recyclables are cleaned, flattened, and baled, held into a large cube by galvanized metal baling wire. This bale is the MRF's primary output product.
- The MRF then sells its bales of plastic to a plastics processing facility, usually a different company than the one that sorts and bales the materials. There, the plastic is flaked or extruded into pellets. It is then ready for reuse by manufacturers.
- Finally, the processor sells the plastic as feedstock for a manufacturer. Perhaps it becomes a water bottle all over again.
The current turmoil in recycling markets occurs between steps three and four. As late as 2015, the U.S. exported 28 percent of all post-consumer reclaimed plastics, according to figures from the American Chemistry Council in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). More than half of all reclaimed post-consumer plastic film (think plastic bags, plastic wraps, and packaging) was processed overseas.
Historically, China imported 51 percent of the world's reclaimed plastic recyclables, processing them for reuse with a vast system of washing, flaking, and extruding operations. Then came the National Sword, which we discuss in more detail in this article.This customs overhaul imposed strict limits on contamination limits in bales of recycling, reducing the allowed cap to 0.5 percent, which many U.S.-based MRFs struggle to reach.
Even worse, the Chinese government followed their standards with an outright ban on imports of most types of post-consumer plastic, along with mixed bales of both paper and plastic. These actions essentially rewrote the rules for the global recycling market.
While the U.S. has a strong network of municipal recycling programs, haulers, and MRFs, it has historically been cheaper to send recovered plastic bales overseas for processing into a final reusable form than to find local processors. The nation hasn't created the infrastructure to export processed plastics in flake or pellet form because it never had to — until now.
Determining Quality in Plastics Recycling Bales
For plastics recycling programs to continue — better yet, to grow — the final product of raw recycled plastics must be able to compete with virgin resins in terms of quality. Even though the Chinese policy changes have rerouted post-consumer plastics to other Asian nations, particularly Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India, they have also started a global trend toward quality. That means low contamination at the source: curbside bins and collective recycling dumpsters in the streets of our neighborhoods.
To get the best prices for bales of reclaimed PET bottles, the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) offers the guidelines for grades A through F. (The APR is quick to note that individual buyers may have different standards; still, the APR grades are a suitable benchmark for determining bale quality for reclaimed post-consumer plastics.)
- Grade A Bales: 94 percent total PET by weight and higher (maximum 6 percent contaminants)
- Grade B: 83 to 93 percent PET (maximum 17 percent contaminants)
- Grade C: 73 to 82 percent PET (maximum 27 percent contaminants)
- Grade F: 72 percent PET or less (28 percent contamination or more)
Some contaminants are not allowable at any level in an acceptable bale of post-consumer PET bottles. These include:
- PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, resin code 3
- Plastic films
- Plastic bags
- Plastics with low melting points, including types of PS, or polystyrene, resin code 6; and polylactic acid, or PLA, a renewable plastic made from organic materials
- Oils or grease
- Wood, stone, mud, dirt, and glass
- Hazardous waste products, including medical waste
- Any item that includes materials that might degrade
And that's just for bales of PET bottles. The APR also provides standards for bales of other recyclable plastics. Those are available here.
In short, grade-A bales of recyclable plastics will be able to compete more readily on the processing market. In turn, only high-quality recycled raw plastics can compete with virgin resins to win the business of manufacturers. Improving quality starts at the curb.
Outreach Tools for Improving Plastics Recycling Quality
In the wake of changing Chinese import policies, a coalition of non-profit organizations, municipalities, and industry groups are offering an unprecedented set of free tools that stakeholders in a local recycling program can use to improve the quality of plastic bales. Tellingly, many of these focus on outreach — the most direct way to keep contaminants out of the U.S. recyclables supply is to train residents what they can and cannot put in their curbside bins.
Here are some of the programs that recycling stakeholders can use — for free — to improve the purity of plastics bales at the MRF, ultimately leading to better raw materials that can compete with virgin plastics:
- Recycling Terms and Tools from RecycleYourPlastics.org
The Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) is an industry group that represents manufacturers of plastic resins, which includes advocacy for plastics recycling. The ACC partnered with recycling consultants MORE Recycling, waste/recycling software provider Re-TRAC Connect, and an advisory board of recycling professionals to put together a set of Recycling Terms & Tools, available here.
These Terms & Tools help municipal recycling systems communicate clearly with their residents. Rather than using the old resin codes to explain which plastics are recyclable, the new Terms describe distinct, recognizable examples. For instance, the new common terms may ask residents to avoid "plastic soda, water, and other drink bottles," while avoiding "containers that held hazardous products."
The Recycling Terms & Tools page also provides a free outreach-builder tool municipalities can use to generate colorful, personalized flyers, complete with royalty-free images. These flyers improve outreach to tell residents exactly what they can — and cannot — recycle in a given program.
- Free Communication Tools from PlasticFilmRecycling.org
Also sponsored by the ACC, the website PlasticFilmReycling.org offers a range of free educational materials designed to explain the ins and outs of recycling plastic bags and films to residents. These tools include a full-color printable poster announcing the presence of a retail drop-off collection site for plastic bags and films. There's also a 5-by-7 tip card for recycling plastic film and bags; this is available in Spanish and English.
Recycling stakeholders can even find a website badge that tells visitors to keep plastic bags and wraps out of curbside bins while finding a local drop-off point.
- The WRAP Program
For those who are ready for a more comprehensive outreach campaign to improve local recycling of plastic bags and films, the ACC also backs an entity called The Wrap Recycling Action Program, or WRAP. This organization helps recycling stakeholders come together to create detailed outreach campaigns to improve the recycling of plastic films in communities across the United States.
WRAP describes itself as "a national public awareness and outreach initiative designed to make plastic film — including wraps, bags, and flexible packaging — a commonly recycled material with a strong and ever-growing recycling rate.
Learn more about starting a WRAP campaign in your own community here.
Note that each of these sets of tools focuses around outreach. Without educating residents on what can and cannot be recycled, the challenge of clean recycling falls on the shoulders of already-burdened MRFs alone. Many MRFs have already slowed sorting lines or invested in new machinery to improve the overall quality of bales; by far the most efficient and affordable way to keep contaminants out of U.S. recyclables is citizen training.
Remember: Recycled plastic ultimately competes against virgin materials. The tools listed above can help improve municipal plastic recycling programs to keep the U.S. market on track in a changing global environment.
"Quality Matters! Resources for Plastics Recycling." EPA. American Chemistry Council Plastics Division, MORE Recycling, 25 Jan. 2018. PDF. 14 Mar. 2018.
"Model Bale Specifications." PlasticsRecycling. The Association of Plastic Recyclers, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2018.
"Model Bale Specifications: PET Bottles." PlasticsRecycling. The Association of Plastic Recyclers, n.d. PDF. 14 Mar. 2018.
"Plastic Packaging Resins." AmericanChemistry. American Chemistry Council, n.d. PDF. 14 Mar. 2018.
Staub, Colin. "Where exports displaced from China are finding a home." Resource-Recycling. 16 Jan. 2018. Web. 14 Mar. 2018.
"Terms & Tools." RecycleYourPlastics. American Chemistry Council, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2018.
"The Wrap Recycling Action Program." PlasticFilmRecycling. American Chemistry Council, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2018.