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​Highlights from the 19th annual Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference NA

State of end markets including China and contamination challenges facing the industry top of the agenda in Chicago

Rebecca Zimmer, Global Director of Environment, Starbucks, speaking at the PSI Session: The Introduction of (Postconsumer) Coffee Cups into the Recycling Bin; a Point/Counterpoint.
Rebecca Zimmer, Global Director of Environment, Starbucks, speaking at the PSI Session: The Introduction of (Postconsumer) Coffee Cups into the Recycling Bin; a Point/Counterpoint.

This year's 19th edition of the Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference North America, held in Chicago from October 17 through 19th and produced by the Recycling Today Media Group, was a very informative, well organized and well attended event, and a good reflection of the mixed feelings currently being expressed by the industry with respect to the state of paper and plastics recycling. On the technology side of the industry, things are largely positive. Business is good. From the latest plastics additive and stabilizing technologies designed to enhance the physical properties and thereby the quality of recycled plastics for compounders and other reprocessors, to the significant advances in sorting, screening and other equipment being put forward by leading manufacturers, it is clear that there is solid demand, and excellent solutions available to help profitably create better quality recycled materials from challenging input streams. The advances in this sector are in fact rapid and ongoing. The latest robotic and optical sorting, coupled with artificially intelligent (AI) "learning" technologies, are particularly impressive - making it difficult for anyone to deny that high-tech materials sorting has a huge role to play in the future of this industry.

Where the recycling industry is feeling less positive is with respect to mixed paper and plastics end markets specifically. The topic of how the industry can best adjust to the new world order without China as a key market for these materials was at the top of the agenda all week in Chicago. While equipment manufacturers and technology providers as well as recyclers which do not deal in mixed plastics or paper remain relatively positive, processors of mixed paper and mixed plastics - especially numbers 3 through 7 - are feeling the crunch most intensely. Inbound contamination levels of mixed materials captured mainly through single-stream programs are as high as 20% or more in many jurisdictions, which means producing extremely pure material is costly and inefficient.

• One highlight of the week was at the PSI Session Wednesday, sponsored and hosted by long-time conference partner, ISRI's PSI (Paper Stock Industries) and moderated by industry veteran, conference co-founder and paper recycling expert Bill Moore, President of Moore & Associates. Sustainability representatives from HAVI/McDonalds and Starbucks participated in a counterpoint format with two experienced MRF owner/operators and Linda Leone, VP, Northeast Region, Recycle, for Westrock - the paperboard mill operator and leading global paper and packaging firm - which does accept post-consumer fibre cups at eight mills in the U.S.

The question: can post-consumer one-time use polymer and fibre-based coffee cups be included in the mix at the recycling plant? Currently, very few communities in North America accept the material. The restaurant brand representatives made great points about the efforts both McDonalds and Starbucks have made recently to try to engage with both consumers and the recycling industry to make their coffee cups more sustainable overall and acceptable for recyclers, including a partnership with the Foodservice Packaging Institute. Both companies are working hard to this end certainly. Currently, there are eight mills run by  Westrock, as well as plants in Vancouver, Seattle and Washington DC, that are accepting their latest post-consumer coffee cups.

By the end of the session however, after the recycling industry representatives responded with their experiences with post-consumer fibre coffee cups, it was clear that from their perspective, there is a long, long way to go. The issues, including food and liquid contamination with this category of container was the first issue pointed to which has so far contributed to reasons why both of the MRF recycling panelists (Mark Badger of Canada Fibers, and Kerry Getter of Texas-based Balcones Resources) have not accepted the material to date. Both were adamant that until post-consumer coffee cups (a mix of paper, ink and polymer coating) are profitable to recycle with sustainable end markets, it just wasn't an economically feasible category of container to accept at their plants.

"For us, it's about cost of recovery and the ROI," said Balcones' Kerry Getter, "and it needs to be good enough for the mill."

Mark Badger from Canada Fibers also mentioned the issue of trying to process paper that is saturated with ink, and which includes an inside polymer coating. The ink contaminates, to varying degrees, the paper portion of the cup. He pointed out that because there are three different materials in a cup, it can produce negative results during processing, including bale contamination as well as "confused" optical sorters, which can have trouble identifying what they are detecting. This can result in cups going to residue and then to landfill. His suggestion was that if cups were made with two layers of polycoat, both outside (with ink on the poly rather than the paper) and inside, with a layer of paper between, it would be a much better scenario for recyclers that need to produce very pure fibre output. Also, he noted, there needs to be the creation of a domestic closed-loop for the product, so it can go directly back into the manufacturer of new cups, and that for it to truly work, every manufacturer of single-use cups needs to produce cups to the same standards. He reemphasized that recyclers simply cannot process material unless it is cost-effective.  

• At a Thursday session titled "Alternate Markets to China - India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico and Latin America", panelists included Steve Sutta, President, Sutta Co. (U.S.), Rogelio Silva, Director, Continental Paper Grading (Mexico) and Sung Soo Lee, Hansol Paper (South Korea).

From the start, it was clear that, according to all three panelists, for mixed plastics and paper, there are simply no viable alternative markets that can act as a substitute for the loss of Chinese end markets. Alternate markets including Vietnam and India have already been saturated (in as little as six months) by the large volumes of mixed paper that cannot go to China. These markets are congested and there is a lack of infrastructure and capacity. So then the question becomes: why would any nation want to continue to take mixed, low-grade, hard-to-recover-for-high-value materials? There is no question that China has good reason not to take mixed materials which cannot be easily recycled, and which ultimately contribute to landfill "waste", as the country strives to clean up one of the most polluted environments on the planet. Why would other countries want to continue to take contaminated recyclables?

"There is no market for mixed plastic, and it's not coming back," said Steve Sutta frankly. "Everyone is overwhelmed. The recycling industry needs to advocate for itself. The Exxons and the Duponts, the multi-billion dollar companies need to figure out a way to re-use the materials that they are producing, and take care of the problem they have created.... The party is over."

I thought this was very well said, and I could definitely feel the frustration echoed on behalf of mixed plastics processors via Mr. Sutta's comments.

On the paper side, Rogelio Silva commented on the capacity of Mexican markets for mixed paper as being way too low to provide a home for the tonnage that now needs a market on an annual basis. "Paper consumption is low in Latin America," he said. "The paper industry has to rethink itself, redesign its systems and processes. I think this is the moment to change what we do." He added that in Mexico, as in the U.S., and Canada, mills are being built, but it will take time to create the capacity.

Interestingly, at the end of the session, one of the audience members stated that he is from Belgium, and wonders why there is so much talk about a lack of international end markets, when he sees many mills empty across the EU, and looking for material. Another asked the question: why are we focused on getting to an impossible purity specification for mixed paper and plastics of as low as 0.5% for an international market, and not entirely focused on building domestic mill and paper making capacity. This then raised the question as to how much the issues we currently face are economic, and how much they are political. Good question.

• Bottom line takeaway for this Editor based on four days at this year's Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference North America: the recycling and waste management industry collectively needs to undergo significant change, monumental even, beyond the level of change that was made when the industry went from dual stream to single-stream collection, or when we saw the resulting MRF-boom of the 2000s. Following are a few more specific takeaways from last week in Chicago.

PPRC TAKEAWAY 1: It remains clear that public education is needed as a first and ongoing step, so that all waste generators, residential and commercial, are engaged and understand the importance of helping to sort recyclables properly - so they retain the highest value possible and the industry can remain sustainable. If there needs to be penalties for non-compliance, or rewards for compliance, then so be it. But this is only one of the changes needed. One part of the equation cannot be the sole focus, and it would be naïve to put all the responsibility on waste generators to diminish recyclables contamination to adequate levels for profitable recovery.

PPRC TAKEAWAY 2: There are also serious issues with labour in the recycling plant, including pickers, (and drivers on the hauling and collection side) which need to paid more so the industry can attract and retain good people. Automation is the future, but a revised, highly trained labour force is also needed. How well this is managed will play a key part in any updated version of the industry that is to come. Some MRF operators, at the Tuesday MRF Operations Forum (which preceded the Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference) told me their picking line turnover is as much as 30% monthly. It is a tough job to sort society's discarded materials, especially when minimum wage and contracted workers are the industry standard in many MRFs.

PPRC TAKEAWAY 3: Perhaps the most important fundamental change that is needed in order to update our industry is that manufacturers of products - many of which are multi-million and multi-billion dollar entities - change the way they manufacture goods. Goods and products need to be made from more homogenous materials, so that recyclers can profitably process those goods at the end of their life, and recover their value. Without this change, it is honestly hard to believe that the industry can be sustained. There has to be some acceptance of responsibility at the ground level - where products with a pre-determined total lifecycle - are made. This means those producers of materials need to pay more for recyclable design and for the end-of-life management of their products ­ -- with the help of government at all levels - in order to sustain a profitable recycling industry. Without a profitable, functioning recycling industry, eventually waste will become overwhelming and everyone will have a very large problem. Beyond corporations, governments in particular need to realize that waste management, if we think long-term (and it need not be too long) is as essential (or nearly) as our roads and sewer systems, for example. They are all three a necessity for a well -functioning society, but roads and sewer systems are funded by tax dollars in every city on the planet, without question. Management of "waste" needs to be thought of similarly going forward, through funding and tax-based support of the recycling industry.

Perhaps it is naïve optimism to think that governments and the producers of goods will somehow realize that global waste management is currently at a crisis point. Even if end markets in China suddenly reappear, we only have to look at the Pacific ocean garbage patch to confirm that there is a crisis in managing global waste. Whatever the case may be, the paper and plastics recycling industry, the collectors and especially the recycling plant operators which have been set up and are greatly invested in order to deal with mixed paper and plastics, are straining under the weight of carrying nearly the entire burden of dealing with these low-return materials once discarded. The recycling industry could use some serious attention and cooperation from all stakeholders, especially the producers of goods which continue to reap the rewards of their massive profits without taking full responsibility for their full cost.

Put simply, the recycling industry needs work. It needs help managing a huge job that is an absolute necessity for all of us. It would seem, based on the conference last week, that there is a long way to go, but that our industry is working extremely hard to reinforce the message, advocate and enact real change. RPN

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