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.