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Separation Anxiety

Plastic producers have a growing appetite for recycled polypropylene, but some MRFs lack the right sorting equipment to match demand.

July/August 2020

By Megan Quinn

North American plastics producers say they can’t get enough recycled polypropylene, but many MRFs don’t have the equipment to capture this material from the residential stream. 

How can recyclers and consumers close the loop on PP recycling?

Polypropylene isn’t as famous in the recycling bin as its more popular cousins, PET and high-density polyethylene, but it’s ready for its moment in the spotlight.

Separation AnxietyPolypropylene—resin code No. 5, found in bottle caps, yogurt cups, margarine tubs, pill bottles, and a wide array of other packaging—is gaining popularity as a feedstock for North American plastics resin manufacturers. In the past five years, their appetites have increased for the material, which also finds end markets in car parts, paint cans, and other food and personal care product containers. Manufacturers of postconsumer resin say they have recently in-vested in new equipment and increased their capacity to produce recycled PP resin for these types of products. “We expect sales of our food-grade recycled polypropylene to probably quadruple in the next three years,” says Jean Bina, director of commercial development and sales at Envision Plastics (Reidsville, N.C.), which manufactures postconsumer HDPE and PP products. “To do that, we will need a greater supply of [materials recovery facili-ty]-recovered PP containers.”

However, the rest of the recycling chain has yet to catch up to this new demand. One issue is that PP doesn’t get collected for recycling at the rate that PET and HDPE do. According to a study from More Recycling (Sonoma, Calif.), about 92% of the U.S. population has access to PET bottle recycling, and 93% has access to HDPE bottle recycling, but only about 60% to 65% have access to a program that recycles PP.
MRFs today don’t agree on whether it’s worth it to collect PP, says Bob Cappadona, vice president at Casella (Charlestown, Mass.). Some community recycling programs or MRFs tell residents to put it in the trash. Others collect it but don’t have the equipment or capital to invest in equipment to create a dedicated PP stream. 

Convincing more MRFs—along with brands, plastics producers, packaging manufacturers, and consumers—to get on board with PP recycling is part of a long-term process, says Jon Powell, vice president of Closed Loop Partners (New York). “The work we have to do is raise the profile of the material as another iconic recycled material,” he says, and reimagine PP’s domestic path from recycling bin to new recycled product.

A shifting market

Until about three years ago, many MRFs would export the PP they collected to China as part of a mixed bale of plastics Nos. 3-7. Once the bales arrived in China, workers would sort through them to pull out any residual PET and HDPE, “then they would sort out the polypropylene,” Bina says. 

Once China stopped accepting most recycled postconsumer plastic scrap, North American residential collection programs and MRFs had to rethink what to do with the material. Some programs told residents they would no longer collect No. 5 plastics, and some MRFs stopped accepting Nos. 3-7 plastics altogether. “Or, they were creating a bale of 3-7 and simply disposing of it,” Powell says. 

In December 2018, Hawaii County told residents to stop putting No. 5 plastics in the recycling bin, saying the change in international markets caused by China’s import ban made it impossible to find end markets for the material. “The markets are just not there for No. 5s,” said George Hayducsko, recycling coordinator for the Big Island’s en-vironmental management department, in a Hawaii Tribute-Herald article. In a July interview with Scrap, Hayducsko added that the Big Island could eventually accept No. 5 plastics again, but only after more MRFs and plastics processors step in to fill the void left by China’s departure from the market. “We are in the middle of the Pacific, far from markets. We are going to have to do a lifecycle analysis before we reintroduce other commodities [like PP] for recycling,” he says.

Uneven sortation has hurt PP’s chances of being seen as a valuable standalone product, Cappadona says. In January, How2Recycle, an organization that approves packaging labels for brands that tell the public how to correctly recycle their packaging, downgraded PP tubs, trays, bottles, and cups from the “widely recycled” label to “check locally.” It explained in its downgrade statement that while about 60% of the American population has access to a recycling program that accepts PP containers, “there is uncertainty around how many of those programs ultimately may be landfilling or incinerating the material, and to what extent challenges for PP recycling will continue to trend.” How2Recycle says its labels must conform with the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, which regulate en-vironmental marketing. If there’s uncertainty about how to handle a specific material, FTC guidelines recommend making “qualified claims.”

In its 2020 State of Curbside Recycling report, The Recycling Partnership (Falls Church, Va.) notes that the loss of the Chinese market was an important catalyst for expanding the domestic PP markets in North America. “Over the last two and a half years, we have really seen an increased demand for PP” from several major North American plastics producers, says Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Waste Management (Houston). The company only started separating PP in earnest at its MRFs in 2018, he says. “Five years ago, most of our facilities were sorting No. 1 and No. 2 plastic, and then 3-7 was its own bale.” Now, about half Waste Management’s residential recycling facilities “have investments to sort PP in the U.S., and we are reviewing potential investments in additional facilities as we speak,” he says. The company has invested $200 million in its recycling infrastructure and opened four new recycling facilities in that time, including a highly automated “MRF of the future” in Chicago, he says. Newer optical sorters have been especially efficient in sorting more PP, he says. “It has become, right after PET and HDPE, the third-most-desirable plastic we pull out of the stream. We need to keep that growing, and we’re excited about growing that. Only five years ago, it was lumped in with low-value plastic, but now it’s making a name for itself.”

The investment puzzle

Although Waste Management and some other MRF operators have invested in additional sorting equipment to capture PP, those investments are not consistent across the United States. Optical sorters are critical to the PP separation process, Cappadona says. Just as the average person can’t tell by sight alone whether a food container is made from PP or another plastic, PP is difficult for MRF workers to sort by hand. “If you don’t have an optical sorter, you’re extracting PP manually, and it is not as simple as a water bottle or a detergent bottle or milk jug,” he says. Optical sorters work by beaming a near-infrared light signal onto the plastic, then studying the wavelengths the polymers reflect back. “That takes out the guesswork,” he says.

Casella has optical sorters in four of its seven single-stream processing facilities. Cappadona says optical sorters require a high level of investment, but he sees them as a significant component for his company to extract high volumes of PP. In many cases, they work more quickly and more efficiently than human sorters and can handle higher volumes of material, he says. In today’s market, Casella and other MRFs see PP as a higher-value commodity than the typical a 3-7 bale, he adds. Casella markets its baled PP to several buyers within North America, including its largest buyer, KW Plastics (Troy, Ala.), which has been ramping up its postconsumer PP resin production in recent years.

High equipment costs can make it harder for smaller MRFs to upgrade this kind of equipment, especially if they aren’t sure they get a high enough volume of PP for the investment to pay off, Powell says. Closed Loop invests in circular economy projects and also helps MRFs figure out how to budget for equipment upgrades that could help them more efficiently process recycled PP. It offers a research report, Building Circular Supply Chains for Polypro-pylene in North America, that gives scenarios of how MRFs can assess their current volume of PP and decide whether advanced sortation equipment to separate PP would be good for expanding their business. The MRFs Powell has consulted with “are looking at their situation and what their inbound materials are. They are asking, ‘What can I do to make my bales competitive?’” 
For PP recycling to truly gain a lasting foothold in the domestic recycling market, advanced sorting systems like optical sorters are an essential piece of the puzzle, according to a group of plastics recycling industry stakeholders that includes the Association of Plastic Recyclers, Closed Loop Partners, GreenBlue, and The Recycling Partnership. The group made a joint statement in February to stand behind PP recycling’s future. “When recycling facilities have access to advanced sortation technology, polypropylene is a valuable commodity to recycle and can be continually remanufactured,” they say in the statement.

The Recycling Partnership announced in July that it would launch the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, which aims to provide $35 million in funding over five years in the form of grants for MRFs to improve their PP sortation capabilities and educate communities about PP collection. The coalition is a partnership among The Recycling Partnership, plastics recyclers such as EFS-plastics and KW Plastics, the American Chemistry Council, and brands such as Procter & Gamble and others. The coalition aims to “stimulate a system-wide shift to increase the capture of polypropylene and demand for recycled content. We encourage all companies that use polypropylene to be part of the solution,” says Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, in the coalition’s announcement.

Ramping up demand

Another factor that helps MRFs make the jump to sorting PP is having reliable buyers for the material. Those buyers weren’t as obvious three to five years ago, Bell says, but once postconsumer resin manufacturers came knocking, the value proposition seemed obvious, he says. 

Waste Management also sells the bulk of its PP to KW Plastics. That company processes 250 million pounds of PP per year, and half of all of its recycled plastic purchases are polypropylene, says General Manager Scott Saunders. His company recently purchased two new extruders and two new wash lines to meet increased demand from major brands, many of which have made public commitments to use a certain percentage of postconsumer resin in their products. Envision Plastics, another major recycled PP resin manufacturer, is in the process of scaling up its PP postconsumer resin capacity as well, particularly its FDA-approved food-grade resin, Bina says. Brands that want to tout responsibly sourced recycled-content containers are the majority of Envision’s expanding business for food-grade containers, she says. 
Cappadona says Casella and other large MRFs have faith that the growing appetite for recycled PP is the be-ginning of a long-term trend, not a short-term fad. As a sign of their confidence in a stable domestic PP market, both Casella and WM last year announced they would no longer be exporting any of their plastics—PP and all other salable grades will be sold only in North America, Bell and Cappadona say. “We do not export residential plastics. We have nice domestic outlets we’re building,” Bell says. 

Taking a hit from COVID-19

Just as MRFs and plastics recyclers have begun making the economic case for PP, the material must weather yet another blow: unstable market conditions. While recycled plastic resin has always competed with typically lower-priced virgin resin, oil prices plummeted in the first few months of 2020, creating a huge gap between virgin and recycled resin prices. Scrap prices also took a nosedive, thus many MRFs that were thinking about upgrading their sorting lines have paused their plans, Saunders says. “Most of the MRFs that process large volumes already use optical sorters to sep-arate polypropylene. When you get to the smaller MRFs, the fact that PP prices are so depressed and there’s a reduced demand from COVID-19, it’s harder to justify them buying an optical sorter when the scrap price barely covers the price of baling,” he says.

Plastics manufacturers have also felt the blow from COVID-19, Saunders says. Almost half of KW’s production and sales comes from recycled PP car battery cases, which it manufactures, sells, and buys back in a closed-loop system. “We are big suppliers to the auto industry, and those guys shut down for six weeks. We did great from January to March, but we were off in April.” Business has started to recover, he says. 
Part of what kept KW healthy was the fact that the other wing of its business sells recycled PP resin to brands that make personal care items. “We’ve been fortunate that the companies that make [recycled plastic pledge commit-ments] are benefitting from people being at home. If you make bleach or laundry detergent, those are in higher demand, so [the companies] are seeing record sales” and don’t have a reason to switch to a lower-cost virgin resin to make their product bottles, he says. “We hope that continues.”

Maintaining brand buy-in

Like the prices for many other commodities, recycled PP resin prices will in part depend on pricing for virgin material, Powell says. “The development of stable markets and continued demand pull by brand owners and other consumers of postconsumer resin will be critical,” Powell says. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, recycling industry stakeholders worried that brand owners would stop buying postconsumer resin. Sunil Bagaria, president of plastics recycler GDB International (New Brunswick, N.J.), says one of his buyers of postconsumer low-density polyethylene informed him it would temporarily be switching to virgin resin to make plastic bags. The same could happen with sales of other types of resin, he says. “We need more than a promise that they will use [postconsumer resin]. We need to know they will use PCR even when the market is at such a disadvantage,” he says.

So far, both Envision and KW Plastics say brand owners have not changed their demand for PCR, and they hope it will remain that way. As the public becomes more aware of the environmental damage plastic pollution can do, brands that have publicly announced sustainability initiatives are under major public pressure to reduce their reliance on virgin plastics, Saunders says. Recycled PP resin is a newer tool these brands can use to improve their packaging. Companies that once focused just on increasing their recycled PET use in water bottles, for example, can also invest in recycled PP caps for further impact, Bina adds. “Recycled polypropylene can expand their options for achieving their overall [sustainability] goals,” she says.

Lingering issues

Separation isn’t the only issue that has stymied PP collection. In communities where municipal recycling programs accept PP, it can be tough to educate residents on what exactly it looks like, Powell says. “The PET drinking water bottle is iconic and registers easily with people as being recyclable,” he says. However, PP takes much more varied forms, “so there’s not a singular icon that an average person can point to and say, ‘That goes in the bin!’” 
Another important piece of the puzzle is converters, “the people who are manufacturing the caps for the bottles, or bottles for the detergent,” Bina says. These converters are concerned with any technical challenges of using a re-cycled polymer in tandem with a certain percentage of virgin resin.

 Companies that are serious about including more recycled PP may also have to make some concessions about their product’s appearance after adding higher percentages of PCR, Saunders adds. Recycled resin might not be able to exactly reflect the company’s signature color, for example. 

Another ongoing topic in the PP recycling conversation is getting packaging companies to not only use recycled resins, but also to create packaging that is more widely recyclable. That includes working with packaging companies to encourage the use of PP-based packaging instead of pouches and flexible wraps, which are not widely recyclable, The Recycling Partnership says in its report, The Bridge to Circularity: Putting The New Plastics Economy Into Practice In The U.S. Changes in packaging design will help MRFs sort these products more effectively and capture more plastic to be used again, which will boost PP’s circular economy power, Bell adds. Packaging manufacturers have an opportunity to look at their current designs to see if they can use fewer and more commonly recycled resins. “Having the manufacturers come together to make sure there is a more consistent makeup is one step in the process,” he says.

Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer for Scrap.
 
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