Is The Plastics Recycling Industry Too Rigid?

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Recycling plastic containers such as water bottles and milk jugs is so ubiquitous to life in the United States, it’s almost difficult to remember a time when everyone threw them in the trash. But recycling is less common for another rigid plastic category: the bulky stuff. A considerable barrier for bulky rigid plastics recycling is, as the name indicates, it’s just so bulky, often prompting recyclers to view collecting and processing it as too big a challenge to be economically feasible. Yet, challenging does not mean it’s impossible, and recyclers who realize that are exploring the quickly advancing bulky rigid plastics recycling market.

Rigid plastics recycling takes shape

Some recyclers have handled specific types of bulky rigid plastic materials for decades, but not necessarily the materials in the mixed bulky rigid bales now becoming more common. Ultra-Poly Corp. (Portland, Pa.), for example, has been recycling a limited variety of bulky rigid plastic items for about 25 years. In the last five years or so, the company has vastly increased the types of bulky rigids it processes to the point that they now are about 10 to 15 percent of its 200-million-pound annual capacity.

Plastic crates waiting for plastics recycling

Some recyclers have handled specific types of bulky rigid plastic materials for decades, but not necessarily the materials in the mixed bulky rigid bales now becoming more common. Image credit – lebanmax/Shutterstock

Ultra-Poly now accepts feedstocks ranging from residential items such as buckets, to commercial items such as large flower pots and milk crates, to industrial items such as pipe sleeves and restroom stall partitions. Depending on the items’ physical form, Ultra-Poly performs a primary size reduction, then feeds the materials through its standard processing sequence, producing pelletized compounds to meet various specifications.

Ultra-Poly is open to expanding its feedstock list, says Kevin Cronin, vice president of sustainability and research and development, as it, like others in the recycling industry—generators, processors, and brokers alike—learns of bulky rigids’ growing scrap value and taps into this potential revenue source.

Bigger Than a Bucket

Industry participants note some confusion about bulky rigid plastics and about which recovered products fit within the category. A general rule of thumb is that bulky rigids are items the size of a 5-gallon bucket or larger. They typically consist of high-density polyethylene or polypropylene, or occasionally a mixture of the two. Specifications state that a postconsumer mixed bulky rigid plastics bale primarily consists of “non-bottle PE and PP bulky rigid plastic items such as plastic drums, crates, buckets, baskets, toys, refuse totes, and lawn furniture typically collected in a residential recycling MRF. This grade should not contain any mixed 1-7 bottles and containers” according to The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the voice of the Recycling industry. On the nonresidential side, frequently recycled items include milk or soda crates, large pails or buckets, food storage containers, and curbside collection carts.

When businesses use slightly different material specifications or definitions, that can lead to extra work to ensure all parties buying and selling the materials understand exactly what they’re dealing with.

“That’s part of the challenge with bulky rigids because they can vary so much in composition,” Cronin says. “It requires quite a bit of diligence on the part of someone like us who is doing reprocessing.”

Recyclers process bulky rigids just like other types of PE and PP. In fact, after they achieve adequate size reduction, they often mix bulky rigid pieces with other forms of the same resins and pelletize them. Where possible, recyclers keep resins approved for food contact separate from all others because

“in the world of recycling plastics, food-grade material is a premium,” says Liz Bedard, director of the rigid plastics recycling program of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (Washington, D.C.).

The processed resins typically go back into manufacturing new versions of the original items, such as buckets, storage bins, and wheeled curbside carts.

Polymers in Demand

APR launched its rigid plastics committee about seven years ago in response to growing stakeholder interest in expanding plastic recycling “beyond bottles” and PET materials. The committee addresses supply and demand, both of which have been on the rise, according to Bedard. The committee recently launched a subcommittee catering more narrowly to the residential bulky rigid plastics market, which still is getting its footing but already is formulating future projects to advance this segment of the industry.

Rigid plastic crates waiting for plastics recycling

Image credit – Baloncici/Shutterstock

Both PE and PP are “in high demand right now,” Bedard says. There’s “a good, strong market.” End uses for both polymers continue to grow, and with that growth comes more demand from manufacturers for high-quality recovered bulky rigid plastics.

“Even today, with the market price being as low as it is, I haven’t seen any strong pushback on the end demand for the material. There are so, so many products it can go into if it has been segregated to the proper level,” says Patty Moore, president and CEO of Moore Recycling Associates (Sonoma, Calif.).

Until about two years ago, domestic generators and recyclers frequently shipped recovered PE and PP bales to Asian countries—especially China—rather than selling them to domestic consumers. Even though demand for such exports has dropped, there is still a market. Exporters must, however, be willing to navigate regulations such as those enforced during China’s “Green Fence” initiative, which, in its demand for cleaner material, put a squeeze on profits. For those committed to serving overseas markets, producing high-quality material is a primary consideration. “When you have bales with a much lower yield [due to contamination], it’s just too expensive to ship and handle them and get enough value out of them,” Moore says.

Such pressure for higher quality, along with the reduced overseas demand, has motivated many recyclers to channel their material to domestic markets instead. “In the last few years plastics processors began to really seek mixed rigids because it’s an underserved market,” says Richie Getter, plastics division manager at Balcones Resources (Austin, Texas). “Domestically, people are trying to mine those bales for the polyethylene and polypropylene, where historically most of that material went offshore. It still does, to a certain extent, but we finally have some infrastructure here in the States, where people are sorting and grinding and washing bulky rigids.”

The steady domestic PE and PP demand has prompted KW Plastics (Troy, Ala.) to examine further expanding its bulky rigids operation. KW Plastics is “only taking in about 50 million pounds annually, … [and] there’s well over 2 billion pounds of these products generated every year that’s going to landfill,” says the company’s recycling division general manager, Scott Saunders, who also sits on APR’s board of directors.

Tapping Supply Sources

Rigid plastic crates are good candidates for plastics recycling

APR estimates the grocery industry generates 350 million pounds of the material annually, which previously primarily ended up in landfills or incinerators. Image Credit – Roman Rybaleov/Shutterstock

In the past, municipalities had been resistant to collecting the large, irregularly shaped items because, for one thing, they occupy a lot of space in collection vehicles, which increases the transportation costs. Now, cities such as Boston and Milwaukee are discovering the benefits of recovering such goods via curbside pickup and diverting them from the waste stream. Dozens of other municipalities hold collection events for these items throughout the year or allow year-round drop-offs at designated sites.

Plastic reclaimers’ desire for additional sources of high-quality PE and PP, bulky rigids among them, was one factor that prompted APR to investigate untapped sources of supply. In 2013, it identified an underserved supply source—grocery stores—and launched a bulky rigids recycling program specifically targeting it. The grocery plastics recycling initiative encourages medium- to large-sized grocery store chains to recycle such items as the buckets, food containers, and prescription stock bottles the stores use in their deli, pharmacy, seafood, and bakery departments. APR estimates the grocery industry generates 350 million pounds of the material annually, which previously primarily ended up in landfills or incinerators.

Most of the recovered materials are clear or natural-colored plastics, which have a greater value because they can be turned into items of any color. “It’s a good stream, it’s a very consistent stream, it’s a relatively clean stream, and—just as important if not most important—it’s all food-grade material,” which also is more valuable, Bedard says.

“Grocery stores as an industry have an interest in reducing their waste stream. … They’re already doing a fabulous job with old corrugated containers and film, and this is the next largest market for material.”

APR piggybacked on those pre-existing OCC and film efforts to launch the bulky rigids program. “These grocery store chains … have distribution centers for sending out groceries to stores on tractor trailers every day and for backhauling bales of OCC and films and wraps,” Bedard says. She points out that it’s standard practice for individual stores to house small balers they use for the OCC, and distribution centers bale the backhauled wraps and film, so “we’re not creating a whole new system; we’re just adding another recyclable to be backhauled.” After backhauling, the rigid plastics can be baled (if they were not previously) or sent directly to market. APR provides technical assistance to grocery store chains participating in the rigids recycling program in the form of logistics, education, and marketing materials, among other things.

Breaking Into Bulky Rigids

Some recyclers have taken a wait-and-see philosophy when it comes to capital expenditures, such as expanding a facility’s processing capacity to handle a new recycling stream. Those who are already recycling bulky rigid plastics understand the trepidation and emphasize how vital it is for businesses to thoroughly understand the markets and materials before leaping in. “In the old days, you’d sense there was an opportunity, so you’d buy the equipment, build the plant, and you’d go out and start buying because you knew what your recovery costs were,” says Robert Render, commercial manager for Ravago Recycling Group’s Ravago Americas division (Orlando, Fla.). Render has noticed a shift in how bulky rigids processors acquire their supply; he now sees more cooperation with and purchasing directly from suppliers—such as retailers or grocery chains—rather than relying as heavily on supply from distributors or MRFs. “Today I think you need to do it in a much more collaborative way to mitigate the risk of the investment. It’s just not a simple market anymore; it’s more complex,” he says.

Plastic shipping crates, waiting for plastics recycling

Sturdy, irregularly shaped bulky rigid items take a toll on standard plastics recycling processing equipment. Image credit – ne3p/Shutterstock

Moore makes a point others have voiced as well: “You’re going to want to know what resin it is and you need to understand it. … The biggest investment is the time to understand the materials.” But overall, the entry barriers to get into bulky rigids are not as great as they are for some other materials, she adds.

“There are some pretty bold people,” Render says. “There might be some people willing to jump in because they’re going to find materials are available for a reasonable price.” But, he admits, “it’s going to be hard” for those wishing to immediately commence bulky rigids recycling in this economic atmosphere.

Beyond knowing the recyclable materials inside and out, processors must commit to investing in the proper equipment. Sturdy, irregularly shaped bulky rigid items take a toll on standard plastics processing equipment. “It is not a simple equation to go out and buy a bale of bulky rigids,” Ultra-Poly’s Cronin says. “It is something that can be rather daunting for a smaller reprocessor that doesn’t have the right equipment.” Although companies can use much of the same types of machinery they use for processing other types of plastics—wash lines, shredders and/or granulators, and extruders, for example—they likely will need to upgrade to heavier-duty machinery to accommodate bulky rigids. The materials sometimes require an initial size reduction even before being introduced to a shredder or granulator. Plus, operators need to know how to configure the machinery to run at the appropriate speed.

KW Plastics made the leap and invested about $15 million into upgrading its infrastructure for the company’s bulky rigids recycling project. “We constructed a wash line designed to run these larger containers that had much more aggressive shredding capabilities for size reduction,” Saunders says. “Because the pieces are larger and thicker, it requires a heavier-duty process—augers and granulators, that type of thing.”

Saunders also noticed that several material generators KW Plastics works with have overcome their earlier hesitation to handle bulky rigids. The generators have chosen to upgrade equipment or add labor to sort the items because they can “make the money back in six months or a year. It’s worthwhile.”

Drumming up end-use customers is another important aspect to consider when adding a new supply or commodity stream. Companies that already recycle similar plastics have a built-in customer base. KW Plastics, for example, had customers in place, in addition to the necessary managers, workers, feedstock suppliers, and available space for building its new bulky rigids wash line. “We knew the end marketplace, we knew what kind of performance the resin needed to meet. … I’m not going to say [it was] without struggle, but we were fairly successful at rapidly moving into production,” Saunders says.

One of the primary struggles specific to adding bulky rigids to an operation is the transportation cost. Transporting these bulky items is not “something that everybody who does recycling can do, or even wants to do,” Cronin says. Although the material itself is heavy compared with other plastic items, bulky rigids’ large size and irregular shapes also can mean fewer recovered materials fit onto a truck, making them costly to transport relative to the material’s value. Processors push for bulky rigid feedstock items to be nested or baled to maximize the weight per shipment. “Material prices in the marketplace right now make it very difficult to justify moving a load of non-nested bulky items like that to a [recycling] facility to have them reprocessed. The economics just aren’t there,” Cronin says.

Some grant programs exist to help offset bulky rigid plastics collection and transportation expenses. For example, Massachusetts provides grants for roll-off containers to collect the items, as does nonprofit charitable trust New Hampshire the Beautiful (Manchester, N.H.). Such grants are only beginning to emerge, though.

The Payoffs

KW Plastics regards its bulky rigids program as successful, despite the hefty labor and capital investments the endeavor required to upgrade to heavier-duty equipment and add capacity. The company considers it quite a feat to have processed more than 50 million pounds of bulky rigids in 2015, considering the newness of the program. “We’re very excited about it because the program did not start until 2012. We went from zero to 50 million [pounds] in two and a half years,” Saunders says proudly. Bulky rigids is now about 10 percent of the company’s business.

The company considers its bulky rigids program so profitable, it anticipates even further expansion into that arena within the next few years. “The line we constructed will run 12 million pounds a month; we’re buying about 4.5 to 5 million, so we have enough capacity to grow 120 to 125 percent more,” Saunders explains. “We wanted to put in enough capacity that as the market grew, and as MRFs converted to segregating this material, they would have a home at KW for the material.”

Bulky rigids processors have reported resin prices fluctuating between $250 and $400 a ton during the past five years; APR’s case studies support those figures. Early last year, the association reported that a 1,000-pound bale of rigid plastic can be worth $100 to $200, compared with $20 to $30 for the same weight of OCC. Although the price of lower-grade material has been going down for years, according to Moore, the higher-grade material is maintaining its value. She anticipates that trend will continue based on the steady demand.

“There’s plenty of demand for pure polyethylene, injection-grade material that is commercially generated or very clean,” she says. “We are seeing a lot of growth there.”

Plastics have come under the same price pressures that other commodities have experienced, but both demand and prices for high-grade PE and PP have fared far better than commodities such as metals and fiber. Thus, diversification is a reasonable protective measure. A northeastern U.S. processor notes that dealing with a diverse set of materials has been vital to the company’s staying afloat during difficult times. “We’ve all had to learn to do some new things and deal with different commodities. So if someone’s not dealing in plastics, or specifically bulky rigids, I would say they’re probably missing the boat,” the processor says. “It is profitable. … Plastics are a way to make up for some of that [other commodity] loss.” This processor also notes that an increasing number of customers prefer to deal with one company that can handle multiple materials, rather than having to deal with several specialized companies.

Although bulky rigids sometimes slip into the difficult-to-recycle plastics category, industry insiders believe it’s well worth the effort and makes sense to add the stream to recycling operations.

“If you think about it, you get a lot of weight per item,” Moore explains. Compare, for example, a five-gallon bucket and a yogurt container. Both are rigid PE, but the bucket weighs about two pounds and the yogurt container weighs just a few ounces. “It makes a lot more sense to handle the [bulky] material,” Moore says. “There’s definitely value in looking at [it].”

Saunders agrees, again touting the rapid success KW Plastics has experienced with its nascent bulky rigids recycling program and its push for expansion. “We see this as a very strong focus of our business for the next decade,” he says.

Obviously, the transition is less complicated for companies that already have a presence in plastics recycling. With or without an existing presence, though, handling bulky rigid plastics can be another chance to broaden your reach and business opportunities. As Bedard points out, “The material is out there, the material is being recovered more—someone is going to need to process it.”

Republished with permission by Scrap Magazine. Authored by Katie Pyzyk. Pyzyk is a contributing writer for Scrap. Feature image – tezzstock/Shutterstock

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