Colin Senechal, UMass Lowell
On January 1st, 2018, China issued a new ban on imported waste plastics from any outside country. This was done as a part of their ongoing initiative to reduce pollution, as the recycling of imported waste can result in the release of unwanted pollutants into the environment. Of the many countries affected by this ban, the United States may be hit the hardest.
Unfortunately, this ban significantly affects the US’s ability to get rid of our own waste. In its current state, the United States does not have the infrastructure to deal with the recycling of all of the waste it produces, leaving recycling centers with overflowing piles of useless plastic since China is no longer buying up our excess material. Even though some of these waste plastics are still being sold to other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, this waste is piling up faster than it can be removed.
THE BAD NEWS
It’s not a surprise that as a result of the decreased demand in recycled resins, the mountains of plastic waste ready for recycling within the US are growing at an extremely fast rate. Many US recycling centers, especially those on the west coast, have begun shipping out what they can’t sell to Southeast Asia to dumps, enabling even greater growth of our already excessive trash heaps. This means that a lot of the plastic waste we produce is no longer getting recycled - only left to sit in giant piles of trash while Municipal Recycling Facilities (MRFs) scramble to find a solution.
In the past, China has imported more than 1.4 million tons of waste plastics such as polyethylene containers and polyethylene terephthalate bottles every year. After the recent ban, the United States will be left with an additional 1.4 million tons of unusable plastic waste every year. For scale, the United States currently recycles somewhere around 3.5 million tons of plastic waste every year:
So, in order to keep up with the growing demand for recycling, we would have to increase our current recycling capacity by almost 50%.
THE GOOD NEWS
First things first, since China’s manufacturers can no longer import waste from the US as raw material, they are being forced to buy new resin. Fortunately for us, many of the largest producers of new plastic resins (particularly polyethylene) reside within the United States, so this growing demand will boost the U.S. economy.
Perhaps more importantly, this waste plastics surplus problem is actually a great opportunity for recycling growth within the United States. As a result of the minimal demand for this recyclable waste, recycled resin prices such as PET and HDPE flake saw a significant drop at the start of 2018. While prices have risen slightly since then, recycled resins still remain competitive, which presents a great opportunity for companies looking to get into recycled material processing in the US. Current information on plastics pricing is available at: this website
While we may not be able to process a lot of this waste at the moment, even small improvements in our plastics infrastructure, prompted by the low cost of recycled resins, would allow companies to more cheaply make use of different kinds of recycled plastic and produce high-quality products.
One of the biggest reasons for this large buildup of plastic waste is the failure of packaging and part designers to account for recyclability when designing plastic parts. Many parts are either too complex to be segregated/dissembled and re-processed, so this makes it very difficult to find a way to do anything useful with them. For example, single-use packaging is trending toward multi-layer, multi-material flexible film, which can neither be separated nor homogenized into a recycled resin with desirable properties. Importantly, single-use packaging applications make up the greatest portion of the plastics market:
As single-use products, many of these parts are made with lower quality materials and given less design time, resulting in final products in unusual form factors with little consideration of recycling potential. Other industry trends, such as the use of metal inserts in plastic parts or ultrasonic welding of plastic parts makes separating the different materials in a plastic assembly very difficult, if not impossible. The positive side of this is that in order to reduce the amount of unused recyclable plastic waste, we may see a trend of more high-quality parts designed for easy recyclability in many sides of the plastics industry. Better designs would allow for easier separation and sorting of unusual form factors or assemblies with multiple materials into separate waste streams. This would ensure that post-consumer plastic products are much more easily reintegrated into new products with minimal energy usage.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Industry improvements likely won’t start without consumer interest. As consumers of plastic products, we can do a few things to help push the development of plastic recycling infrastructure. First, we need to keep recycling. Although it may seem counterintuitive to contribute to the giant piles of plastic waste that already exist, we must continue to force the problem and promote the use of recycled plastics in industry so that recycling infrastructure can catch up. For more information on recycling and how you can contribute, visit this website.
Next, we must convince government officials to invest in recycling infrastructure. In his State of the Union address, President Trump announced that he is looking to spend money on US infrastructure improvements that will promote the country’s manufacturing. This is a great opportunity for plastics recycling to grow within the US, and many plastics professionals are hoping that the government will choose to spend this money on recycling infrastructure. As consumers, we can continue to promote recycling by electing government officials who want to spend money and time improving this system. As a recent Science article states, bold ideas for increasing recyclability and waste management are needed.
Finally, if you happen to be an owner or employee of a corporation that manufactures plastic products, you may want to start looking into the possibility of using recycled materials instead of newly produced “virgin” resins. With costs going down, these materials may start becoming a financially viable option that also looks good for a company with respect to sustainability within the plastics industry. If a company could introduce even 10% recycled material into a product, this would help reduce the cost of the product, as well as shrink the growing stores of plastic waste significantly without sacrificing much in terms of mechanical properties.
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