eco ramblings

a dialogue with an Eco Patriot

Archive for the ‘RPET’ Category

Should We Be Proud of a 28% Recycling Rate?

Posted by Luke on November 1, 2010

The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) just released their report of 2009 PET bottle recycling.  The report proclaims that the U.S. recycling rate for PET bottles has reached an all-time high of 28%.  In the days following the release of the report, there seems to be excitement in the industry about this so-called accomplishment.  Is this really something we should be proud of?

By being happy about only recycling 28% of water bottles, we are saying we are okay with throwing away the other 72%.  As a society, that’s pathetic.  Let’s see how this stat looks if we use other examples…

  • I’m proud that I ate 28% of my food and threw the other 72% into the garbage
  • I’m proud that I opened the windows 28% of the time and used the air conditioner the other 72%
  • I’m proud that I threw away 28% of the garbage I took camping with me and dispersed the other 72% as litter

Suddenly, 28% doesn’t look so good.

This isn’t meant to be a slam on recyclers.  Other than a few of the big players in the trash industry, most recyclers are low-profit businesses, so I can’t totally blame them for not helping to drive this number higher.  They make money from selling reclaimed materials, so I know they’d like to capture more recyclables.  The root issue falls on the shoulders of other parties, and here are some of the reasons:

  1. Consumers aren’t educated about how and what to recycle. I understand how it can be hard to figure out if odd-shaped containers are recyclable, but doesn’t everyone know that PET bottles (water bottles, soda bottles, etc.) are recyclable?
  2. Consumers don’t have access to recycling. Curbside programs are pretty ubiquitous.  Public-area recycling is shockingly still problematic.  It should be against the law to have a trash can without a recycle bin next to it (maybe when I run for President).
  3. Manufacturers aren’t demanding enough reclaimed materials from recyclers. The economics simply aren’t good enough to cause manufacturers to tip from using virgin resources to recycled.  It’s unfortunate.
  4. Legislation isn’t supportive enough. Tipping fees at landfills are cheaper in most states than recycling fees.  Until the government mandates higher tipping fees on landfills, waste haulers will never be incentivized to recycle vs landfill.  The UK has done it right by making this change through a tax.

Sure, 28% is better than last year and the year before, but let’s not be complacent.  There’s a long way to go.

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Posted in bottles, Landiflls, litter, manufacturing, plastics, recycled products, recycling, RPET, trash | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Debate Over How To Label Compostable Products

Posted by Luke on July 12, 2010

I’ve been involved in the debate over having a standardized label for compostable products for several years now.  Many composting facilities and other industry stakeholders believe that creating a standardized label to indicate a product is compostable would solve the problems of contamination.  And the label they want standardized across all products is a printed green band.  The truth of the matter, though, is that contamination levels would only decrease a very small amount, but the composting industry as a whole would suffer tremendously.

The Biodegradable Products Institute is the leading body for verifying a product is compostable

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition recently released a report that includes results of a survey of 40 industrial compost facilities.  82.5% of those facilities think the biggest opportunity for improvement is a standardized label for compostable products.  They have a hard time knowing what is compostable and what isn’t.  I see their point.  A clear PLA cup looks just like a clear PET cup.  There’s more to it than that though.

72.5% of the survey respondents said that accepting compostable packaging allows them to increase their total food waste tonnage.  Accepting these products improve the outcome of the overall composting program.  If we require a label on compostable packaging, it will present obstacles to manufacturers of these products and deter them from making the products in the first place (more on this below).  Based on the results of the survey, if compostable products aren’t widespread, food waste composting programs will decrease.  These products are critical to drive total food waste diversion from landfills.  That means that the composting industry will take several steps backwards if compostable products become less widespread.

Most of the standardized labeling talk is around requiring a green stripe.  The problem is that a green stripe isn’t possible to print on the majority of products.  It’s possible on cups, but it can’t be printed on a disposable fork.  It can’t be printed on most food containers.  Actually, I take that back.  It could be printed on those items, but the cost of the items would quadruple.  Then people would complain about the product manufacturers charging too much.  This is what I meant above when I said that requiring a label would deter manufacturers from producing these products because it would significantly drive up their production costs (by 2-4 times).

Second, major brands aren’t going to get behind a green stripe.  Can you imagine a compostable Coca-Cola cup with a green stripe on it?  It doesn’t jive with their red brand look and feel unless it’s Christmas.  I can’t see them or other brands getting behind this.  Competing brands don’t want to look like each other and a green stripe would create too much unison between competitors.  If big brands don’t get behind it, the likelihood of it succeeding is slim to none.

Let’s Take a Lesson from the Recycling Industry

Similar to the composting industry, the recycling industry has faced the challenge of contamination for decades.  Recyclers struggle with contamination because people put every type of plastic container in the recycling bin.  Most people think that just because a piece of plastic has a recycling symbol on the bottom of it that it can be recycled.  Unfortunately, that’s not correct.  The recycling symbol is very misleading on packaging.  39 states require that all plastic products have a recycling symbol with the number indicating what type of resin it’s made from.  It has nothing to do with the recyclability.

As a result, all plastic products have recycling symbols on them even though they aren’t all accepted by recycling facilities.  Virtually the only products that are widely recycled when they reach the recycling facility are #1 and #2 bottles.  All other products (salad containers, produce containers, etc.) aren’t recycled at 95% of the recycling facilities in the country  The reason is because the companies who buy the recycled materials buy them in compressed bales.  If they know the bales only consist of bottles, they know what they’re getting.  If the bales contain various other types of containers, they don’t know what type of resin they are buying.  Most recycling facilities don’t have optical sorting technology to sort between various types of resins.

I draw the comparison to the recycling industry because they haven’t been successful in creating a standardized label, so why would the composting industry have any different of an outcome, especially when most stakeholders want the label to be a green stripe which is feasibly impossible to print on the majority of product shapes?

Here’s My Solution…

The only standardized label that I see as working is requiring compostable products to have the word “COMPOSTABLE” embossed on the product.  Since a resin symbol has to be embossed anyway to denote the type of material, it’s not difficult to also emboss the word “COMPOSTABLE.”  That precludes anything about color, so it shouldn’t upset big brands.  It also works with existing manufacturing processes, so there shouldn’t be an increase in the cost of production.  It would be up to the FTC and other industry bodies to regulate that any product claimed as compostable has ASTM D6400 certification and verification from the Biodegradable Products Institute.

The problem we return to, though, is that an embossed word isn’t as clearly recognizable to compost sorters as a color (I didn’t say my solution was perfect).  This leads me to believe that another solution is improved screening technology at composting facilities which would allow plastic contamination to be screened out and removed from the inbound organic waste.  I know that’s costly and we can’t expect composters to invest in that equipment on their own overnight.

All of this goes hand-in-hand with the need for educating the general public about what is compostable and what isn’t.  This will take time.  The recycling industry still struggles with this after several decades.

A Note to Industry Groups Trying to Solve This Issue… Let’s Not All Separately Try to be Heroes

There are several different industry groups trying to come up with their own solutions.  The worrisome part is that they aren’t communicating with each to develop a unified vision.  I just hope one of those groups doesn’t try to strong-arm a policy into effect without thinking through all of the various angles.  That would, ultimately, hinder the growth of compostable products and the composting industry.

Posted in bottles, compostable, compostable products, composting, containers, cups, environmental products, foodservice, packaging, recycling, RPET | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Highlights from the 2010 Plastics Recycling Conference

Posted by Luke on March 4, 2010

Here are some of the key take-aways from the conference held in Austin this past week:

  • The public’s lack of affection for plastic will likely continue to get worse if products can’t be recycled.  Recycling is the easiest thing consumers can do to feel like they are making a difference.  Municipalities, recyclers, and manufacturers need to make recycling easier for consumers.
  • Single-stream recycling has a slight impact on contamination rates, but single stream is essential for making recycling easy for consumers and for increasing the recycling rate.  Most MRFs are switching to single-stream.
  • Recyclers will need to find ways to recycle the current unrecyclable.  This could occur through the following: (1) better recycling technology, (2) investment in recycling, (3) government advocacy and legislation, (4) consumer education, and (5) a continued market demand for recycled materials.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) will likely continue to grow; this will make packaging manufacturers more responsible for the end life of their products
  • Contamination and quality of reclaimed materials (i.e. bottles) is becoming a bigger and bigger problem.  Recyclers are paying more money for lower quality reclaimed materials.  That makes it harder for them to sell recycled resins at competitive prices.
  • There is a growing problem of manufacturers mislabeling plastic products as #1 when they actually aren’t.  Since I’m actively involved in the compostable products industry, this was interesting for me to learn about considering the composting industry struggles with mislabeled products as well.
  • Recycling non-bottle rigid plastic containers is an issue we MUST overcome.  The issue isn’t that there isn’t a demand for those materials after they are reclaimed.  In general, manufacturers want to use recycled resins and there is pent up demand for them.  The issue is getting non-bottle rigid plastics through the reclaimation system.  This can be done through the ways listed in bullet #3 above.
  • Since China buys so much of our reclaimed materials, and the quality they demand is lower than what US recyclers demand, there isn’t as much incentive for US-based collectors to maintain high-quality standards because they can easily ship the stuff overseas.  Overall, this impacts the entire recycling value chain and market.
  • Change is looming for the #1-7 recycling codes.  The ASTM is working on it, but they also have to get all of the states to adopt the new codes (when finalized) into their statutes.  This will hopefully help with the #7 “Other” issue as well as classifying bioplastics properly.

Posted in China, event, Landiflls, recycled products, recycling, RPET | Leave a Comment »

A Breakthrough in Cup Innovation

Posted by Luke on February 14, 2010

I want to take a minute to share a pretty big innovation Eco-Products just announced.  We successfully developed a line of a clear plastic cups made from 50% post-consumer bottles – more than two times the amount of recycled content of any cup on the market.  It’s been challenging to find the right level of post-consumer plastic while still balancing quality and price, but we think we did it. 

New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins who is known for their sustainability efforts is one of our launch partners.  Forbes, Recycling Today, and some other noteworthy sources picked up the press release about New Belgium and Eco-Products.

Posted in foodservice, manufacturing, recycled products, RPET | Leave a Comment »

Recycling and the Economy

Posted by Luke on February 5, 2010

The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers held a webinar yesterday titled “Understanding the recycling industry’s current and potential role in supporting manufacturing.” 

Although waste diversion will continue to be important, the management and reproduction of diverted materials is becoming a bigger and bigger issue.  Between the 1980’s and 1990s, the number of curbside recycling programs grew from 500 to over 9000.  At the time, the U.S. manufacturing base was not setup to process all of the recycled materials and turn them into usable products.  As a result, China ended up saving our recycling programs because they bought a majority of the recycled materials.  Without China, it’s possible that our country’s recycling programs would not be where they are today. 

China is still a big purchaser of recycled materials – over 50% of all recycled PET bottles are shipped across the Pacific.  If we want to truly have a viable recycling economy, we need to drive U.S. manufacturers and legislators to focus on producing finished goods using post-consumer recycled materials. 

You can download the full webinar presentation slides here.

Posted in China, event, Landiflls, manufacturing, recycled products, RPET | Leave a Comment »

Which is more environmentally sound: recycled content or compostable?

Posted by Luke on January 23, 2010

There was a great article in a recent Resource Recycling issue that evaluates the pros and cons of recycled content vs renewable/compostable.  This is a growing debate with foodservice operators and one that will surely continue for some time.  With the growth of both products made from recycled content and products made from renewable resources, restaurant owners now have a couple of great alternatives to petroleum-based products based on their waste management systems. 

Benefits of renewable-resource based compostable products:

When looking at the life cycle analyses of bioplastic resin such as NatureWorks Ingeo PLA, there’s no question that PLA releases fewer greenhouse gases during production than its petrochemical counterparts like PET.  There’s also the key benefits of being produced from plants instead of oil and its ability to be turned back into dirt if disposed of properly in a commercial composting facility.  Some argue that PLA takes away from our food source, but I have never been able to agree them.  The corn used to produce PLA is grain corn, not the type of corn we eat on the table.  And if the NatureWorks factory was at full capacity, which it isn’t, it would only consume .1% of the nation’s grain corn.  Another argument anti-PLA people use is that PLA is made from GMO corn, which it is.  Although I’m not a fan of GMO myself, I’d much rather use a GMO plant to produce a plastic cup than use oil imported from who knows where.

Benefits of recycled content:

Recycled content creates an interesting alternative and one that I believe is a 2nd best option to renewable resource-based products.  Making cups from recycled content supports the recycling market which, ideally, in turn will build demand for more recycled products and more recycling.  Building the demand for recycled products is important because if recyclers can’t find a channel to sell their recovered materials, they’ll be less likely to collect certain types of materials and will ultimately drive up the price for recycled content.

So between the two – recycled content and renewable/compostable – we now have two great options outside of virgin petrochemical-based products.  What’s great about these options is that people can choose what works best for them.  If they have access to a composting facility, renewable/compostable products are the most environmental choice.  If they don’t have access to such a facility, recycled content products are a good alternative.

Posted in biodegradable, compostable, compostable products, foodservice, packaging, recycled products, renewable resources, RPET | Leave a Comment »

 
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