In recent years North American municipalities have seen demand grow for recovered plastic bottles from overseas markets that pay high spot prices for the material. Although financially beneficial in the short-term, the decision by municipalities to export increasing volumes of baled plastic bottles has the potential to threaten the long-term viability of the domestic plastic bottle recycling industry and the domestic manufacturing of recycled products across North America.
Today, the downstream plastic recycling industry comprises approximately 1,400 companies involved in acquiring and/or reprocessing post-consumer plastic bottles. Without a steady supply of these materials many of these environmentally conscious and entrepreneurial companies may face serious setbacks. This, in turn, could place the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars invested in the plastic recycling industry at risk. Ultimately, municipalities may lose the option of selling sorted plastic bales to reliable and responsive long-term domestic recyclers serving local recycling markets.
According to recycling capacity statistics from the U.S.-based American Plastics Council (APC), the North American reclamation-wash capacity for both polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles exceeds supply from plastic recovery programs by a significant margin. Estimates show that the excess wash and recycling capacity for PET bottles was approximately 330 million pounds for 2002, while HDPE bottle excess capacity was 378 million pounds for the same year.
The unused domestic plastic bottle recycling capacity is increased by higher exports of baled plastic bottles sold to offshore recycling markets. APC and the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) are working to communicate the potential consequences of an alarming trend showing exports of baled plastic bottles increasing by 17.5 per cent in 2002 to reach 275 million export pounds in PET alone. APC also estimates that approximately 105 million pounds of HDPE bottles were also exported in 2002.
Domestic markets for recycled plastic bottles
PET and HDPE bottles continue to be the two most common types of plastic resin recycled in North America. According to APC, the demand for post-consumer PET continues to exceed the supply of recycled PET bottle resin. Fibre — like the kind used to make fleece clothing and blankets, as well as stuffing for upholstery, sleeping bags and ski jackets — remains the number one application for recycled PET. This market alone represents approximately 56 per cent of the total PET recycling market. Fibre is followed by new food and beverage containers at 17 per cent, strapping at 16 per cent, non-food containers at seven per cent, film/sheet at two per cent, compounded resin at two per cent and “other” at one per cent.
Forty-five per cent of recycled HDPE bottles are made into new bottles, 14 per cent into pipe, 11 per cent into film/sheet, 10 per cent into lawn and garden supplies, eight per cent (and growing) into composite-lumber applications, one per cent into pallets/crates/buckets and the remaining 11 per cent is made into “other” markets. This latter category includes automotive products, such as bed liners and mud flaps.
Views on the street
Despite the potential increased revenue from selling recovered plastic bottles into overseas markets, Rick Clow, General Manager for Quinte Waste Solutions, has not had reason to investigate this option.
“To date we haven’t seen any foreign offers higher in price than what we have been getting domestically,” he says, adding that longer payment periods and foreign currency adjustments could potentially wipe out any higher prices attained.
“We have long-term contacts in place that we’re pleased with,” he states, adding that those individuals buying on behalf of the overseas markets haven’t been consistent in contacting the organization. “We prefer to deal with the more developed lines of communication already established,” concludes Clow.
Communication and relationship building is also at the heart of the Bluewater Recycling Association. Company president Francis Veilleux states that the organization hasn’t investigated overseas markets for plastic bottles but, at the same time, he states that many buyers are brokers so their ultimate destinations are unknown, for the most part.
“We tend to prefer the North American markets,” says Veilleux, who adds that in the 15 years of the organization’s existence, he recalls two occasions when Bluewater dealt with an international broker to ship to a foreign destination. Payment upfront was requested — and complied with — in both instances but other “complications” arose.
Despite short-term financial gains for municipalities that opt to sell their recovered plastic bottles to overseas markets, the long-term sustainability of the North American plastic bottle recycling industry ultimately depends upon continued commitments to supply recovered post-consumer plastic bottles. Any short-term financial gains may be offset by the loss of long-term, sustainable recycled plastic markets in North America, thereby eliminating future options for municipalities to manage long-term contracts and to move steady volumes of recovered plastic streams into revenue-generating domestic markets.
In support of increasing the domestic supply-demand options for recycling plastics, EPIC and APC have developed a number of resources for municipalities. These include the North American Plastics Recycled Plastics Market Database and the Recycled Plastics Product Directory. Both are online databases accessible free-of-charge from the EPIC web site at www.plastics.ca/epic. The former is designed to bring buyers and sellers of recycled plastics together, while the latter encourages the purchase of products made from recycled plastics.
Cathy Cirko is director general of the Environment and Plastics Industry Council, a council of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. Contact her at email@example.com