The use of plastics in modern society is everywhere and any campaign to stop their use is likely futile at this point. As sustainable practices become more prevalent, the recycling of plastic continues to be an ongoing challenge due to there being more than seven types that can be mixed and matched to make any number of products. Nonetheless, the business of plastic recycling is growing and has proven to be lucrative to some.
Plastics exchanges & industry
Unbeknown to most, plastic scrap from the industrial, commercial, and institutional (IC&I) sectors is openly traded just like other commodities on various exchanges across North America. For example, there’s the American Plastics Exchange (APEXQ, www.apexq.com) and the Plastics Recycling Network (PPN, http://ontario.polychange.com). The commodity prices (from APEXQ, July 20) for the various plastic feedstocks can be seen in the table.
According to the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers (APPR), approximately 1,800 companies across North America recycle post-consumer plastics, triple the number of companies operating just a few years ago. Post-consumer plastic is the material found in municipal blue boxes; it needs to be sorted and categorized prior to processing and has no value as a commodity. (For more on municipal mixed plastics programs, see article on page 28)
There are some companies in North America focus solely on post-industrial recycling plastics from the IC&I sector (ignoring post-consumer plastics altogether). The advantage of recycling post-industrial plastics is that the recycler is assured a much cleaner feedstock.
Post Plastics Canada Inc., located in Ajax Ontario, is an example of a Canadian company that focuses solely on post-industrial plastics recycling. It’s difficult for outsiders to understand that Post Plastics is not a waste company. It purchases its raw feedstock from post-industrial sources, either directly from other companies or via the aforementioned exchanges. As a buyer plastic scrap, the company reserves the right to reject a specific shipment of material if it’s contaminated with other types of plastic or other material. This aspect differentiates the company from recyclers that are simply paid to receive and process a mixture of various plastics contaminated with other materials.
Post Plastics makes its money through upgrading the plastics it buys into a more useable feedstock for recycling by either shredding and/or baling. A quick glance at the table of commodity prices for PET scrap versus regrind clearly shows a difference ranging from $0.15 to $0.34 per pound.
Kevin Poitrais, President of Post Plastics, has seen a definite shift in the industry over the past 10 years. When he first started the business in 1999, there was high supply and low demand for recycled plastic and the majority of material was shipped to China. Currently, there is a shift back to the North American market due to rising production costs in China.
Asked if he has any advice to those contemplating entering the plastics recycling business, Poitrais responds, “Managing contamination of the incoming material is the key to a successful business. There have been advances in separation technologies but the capital and operating costs of the equipment eat into profit margins.”
The future of plastics recycling is bright according to Poitrais.
“Although there are more competitors that have resulted in lower profit margins, increased volume has more than made up for it,” he says. “Also, some companies are moving toward becoming multi-material recyclers, incorporating paper and metal into their business.”
A major driver in plastics recycling is the growth in the number of products that can be manufactured using recycled plastic. Plastic decking, outdoor furniture, railway ties and curbs are some of the many products currently being manufactured from recycled plastic.
John Nicholson, M.Sc., P.Eng., is a consultant based in Toronto, Ontario. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org