Solid Waste & Recycling

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"Real" Markets for Recycled Plastic: A Western Perspective

Attendees of the 1998 conference of the Recycling Council of British Columbia (RCBC) got an earful of woe about recycling markets. The long-term viability of recycling programs is at stake--not only m...


Attendees of the 1998 conference of the Recycling Council of British Columbia (RCBC) got an earful of woe about recycling markets. The long-term viability of recycling programs is at stake–not only municipal recycling, but also the province’s beverage container deposit program (which is due to expand in October to include glass, plastic, and aseptic containers). Poor markets mean extra costs for taxpayers who support municipal programs and for consumers who support deposit programs.

Recycling will be self-sustaining only when product brand-owners choose recycled material for their products and packaging. When brand-owners won’t do this voluntarily, governments can jump-start the process by creating a “legislated demand” for recycled material. They can require the use of reclaimed material in specified products and packaging. For example, recycled-content laws in California and Oregon require publishers to print on newsprint that contains specified percentages of recycled paper fibres. In the early 1990s, cities were forced to landfill warehouses full of old newspapers that couldn’t be sold. However, once the recycled-content laws were introduced, paper-makers re-tooled for recycling. Today, the City of Vancouver shares in profits from the sale of newspaper to markets created by these mandates, helping to offset the costs of curbside collection.

The same medicine is needed for other materials collected in municipal recycling programs. Vancouver currently pays $44 per tonne to get rid of containers (glass, plastic, and metal) that are collected in the Blue Boxes, which cost taxpayers upwards of $14,000 per month, on top of collection costs.

Of the containers collected in Vancouver, just over 20 per cent are plastic containers. Plastic is the fastest-growing sector of the packaging market and is quickly replacing glass and metal. It’s also the material that drives up collection costs because of its bulk.

Markets for plastics are very unstable and so the North American recycling rate for plastic is low (21.2 per cent in 1996) and falling (from 22.2 per cent in 1995). Prices rise and fall with the economic cycles, while collection costs are constant. More importantly, recycled plastics can’t compete against mass-produced low-cost virgin plastic. Between 1995 and 1996, a flood of cheap PET helped drive down the recycling rate for soft drink bottles, from over 46 per cent to 38.6 per cent (at a time when bottle production actually rose 10 per cent).

As plastic resin manufacturers tool up for a big expansion in polyethylene capacity (Industry Canada reports a planned increase of over 1,000 kt per year due to “low raw material costs” in Alberta), carefully targeted recycled content requirements would help to ensure that recycled plastic can find markets and bring revenue rather than red ink to local municipalities.

Rather than wait for an initiative from south of the border, the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC), British Columbia’s oldest environmental organization, is doing outreach to launch a campaign for Canada-wide mandatory recycled content regulations which would apply to specific classes of plastic products.

The first target will be household industrial chemicals. This large product category includes liquid cleaning products, which are mainly packaged in HDPE. There are no technical or health barriers to using recycled content in these containers. Even a relatively low 10 per cent recycled content requirement would create a significant new market for reclaimed milk jugs and other HDPE containers. This action would also open the way to future recycled content mandates in durable products like textiles, carpeting, and automotive and construction supplies.

Written by Helen Spiegelman, vice-president of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC), in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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