Although man-made plastics have been around since the late 1800s, recycling them is relatively new. Questions about the health and environmental impacts associated with the production of plastic from virgin resins began in the 1960s, especially in respect to discarded beverage containers and litter. By about two decades later, municipalities across Canada initiated plastic recycling programs.
The plastics recycling industry in Canada is relatively new; the first companies set up shop in the late 1970s. The growth of the industry has mirrored the growth of municipal recycling programs.
With over seven major types of recyclable plastic from either the post-industrial waste stream (i.e., scrap material left over during manufacturing) or the post-consumer market (i.e., plastic bottles put in a blue box and left at the curb), and with the market still in development, there are still opportunities in the plastics recycling business.
The most common plastics recyclers in Canada process polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used to manufacture soft-drink and water bottles and high density polyethylene (HDPE) used in butter and yoghurt tubs. New opportunities exist for those looking to get into recycling film (i.e., grocery bags), polypropylene, and the other types of numbered plastics 1 thru 7.
Other growth areas within the industry include vertical integration, whereby a company becomes a product manufacturer and recycler. The savings in capital and operational costs from such an operation combined with better controls over feedstock makes it inevitable that such operations will soon be in established. (See article, page 38.)
Market drivers & challenges
Several drivers are helping the industry grow, one of which is the growing worldwide demand for plastic, especially in the developing world.
Another is regulatory: the continued focus by various provincial and municipal governments in Canada to divert waste from landfill and promote the 3Rs. More supply equals more opportunity for the plastics recycling industry.
One economic driver for industry growth is the rising cost of virgin feedstock material for manufacturers of the plastic-containing material. Plastic recyclers are increasingly able to produce recycled pellets equal in quality to virgin feedstock but at lower cost. Moreover, manufacturers using recycled plastic are able to advertise their goods as "environmentally friendly."
However, a new challenge facing the plastics recycling industry is contamination of incoming material with biodegradable plastic. Biodegradable plastics are not compatible with plastic recycling programs. The presence of biodegradable plastic in recycled plastic lowers the quality of the end product. This is a contentious issue and will only be solved when some kind of system is created for consumers in which they can easily determine which plastics go in the recycling bin and which go in the composter or green bin.
If the governments and consumers are going to support the plastic recycling industry in Canada there needs to be an examination on the use of biodegradable plastic in packaging. If the utilization of biodegradable plastic is going to be promoted then government and the public need to be aware that it could be to the detriment of recycling other plastics.
Another challenge hindering the growth of the plastics recycling industry in Canada is the offshore shipment of used plastics. Although it's difficult to get accurate statistics on the exact percentage of used plastics shipped offshore, some within the plastics recycling industry have estimated that up to 40 per cent of mixed plastics and 60 per cent of film plastic ends up in cargo containers destined for recycling centres in China.
The offshore shipment of hazardous waste is currently banned from Canada. Is it time to do the same for plainer domestic wastes like plastic?
Plastics recycling and the green economy
EFS-Plastics in Sarnia is an example of Canadian-based company utilizing cutting edge technology to recycle plastics and create feedstock to make new products. Specializing in post-consumer plastics, the company has invested over $6 million in its mixed plastics recycling operation. Employing 11 people, the company is poised for even further growth.
The company has been able to overcome the challenges of offshore shipments and biodegradable plastics by securing long-term supply arrangements directly with municipalities and utilizing its technology to ensure the recycled plastic meets the specifications of buyers.
One way municipalities can help the plastics recycling industry is through signing such long-term supply agreements. By going through brokers, municipalities are contributing the offshore shipment of a valuable commodity that could be recycled in Canada for use in the manufacture of new products here.
The federal and provincial governments can assist the plastics recycling industry by providing clear policy direction. And of course, you and I can help the plastics recycling industry by sorting wastes appropriately, and only purchasing products made from (or packaged in) recyclable plastics.
John Nicholson, M.Sc., P.Eng., is a consultant based in Toronto, Ontario. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org