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Plastics recycling in Canada: It’s Getting Better

Life is almost perfect for Canada's plastic scrap recyclers. Consumer access to recycling programs? No problem. Brand owners and retailers on board? Done. Enough post-consumer material? Hmmm...


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September 1, 2012 by Mark Stephen, editor

At present, the post-consumer plastics industry in Canada is in a bit of a good news/bad news situation. 

On the one hand, Canadians have better access to recycling for plastics packaging and our overall recycling rates for plastics are increasing significantly, which is good news for plastics recycling companies. On the other, some plastic scrap markets have been caught in a downward spiral for the past few months; led by a slump in polyester, certain plastic scrap grades have been hit by a combination of lower oil prices, a slumping economy throughout Europe, and a slowing Chinese buyers’ market — this last of which is forcing more plastic scrap exporters to redirect shipments to other destinations.

How do we reconcile these two extremes? Well, maybe we don’t have to, at least in the short term; the enthusiasm for all things recycled is powerful enough to roll right over the contradiction — for now, anyway. 

SATISFYING STATISTICS

There’s no doubt that the sun is currently shining on the plastics recycling industry in Canada. Two recently released reports show that not only do Canadians have better access to recycling for plastics packaging, our overall recycling rates for plastics are increasing significantly. The first report, released in February by Peterborough, Ont.-based CM Consulting Inc., reported an increasing number of Canadians having access to recycling many different forms of plastic packaging. This includes nearly country-wide access (95%) to plastic bottle recycling and 91% access to recycling of household tubs and lids (up from 88% in 2009). The report also highlights access for PET non-bottle rigid packaging such as trays or bakery clamshells, which can now be recycled by 76% of Canadians (three percentage points more than in 2009). THE CM Consulting study also noted that the largest increase in access for a particular material is for foamed polystyrene, which is now recyclable by 32% of Canadians (an increase of seven percentage points since 2009). Access to recycling for expanded polystyrene protective packaging has more than doubled, meanwhile, increasing from 12% to 31% in that same time frame.

The second report, released in September 2011 by Sonoma, Calif.-based Moore Recycling Associates Inc., surveyed over 500 companies that handle recycled plastics in North America, including reclaimers, exporters, brokers, and materials recovery facilities. It confirms that Canadian recycling efforts have increased the amount of post-consumer plastic packaging being recycled across the country, including an additional 15% of plastic packaging recycled in 2010 compared to 2009. 

Dig a little deeper into the study and the news gets better still. There was over a 50% increase in plastic film and bags collected for recycling from commercial businesses in Canada. In addition, of the total film and bags recovered, one-third came from consumer curbside recycling programs across the country.

Best of all, Canadian recyclers of plastics are described by both reports as eager to handle even more supply; they have underutilized capacity, creating ample opportunity for consumers and businesses to supply them with more plastics. It’s estimated, for example, that film and bag recycling in Canada is at 38% utilization of the capacity, and non-bottle rigid recycling is at 47% utilization of the capacity. In short, there’s plenty of room to increase plastics recycling.

And that’s good news, because there’s an ever-growing list of goods that post-consumer plastics can be used for. Sports drink and single use water bottles that contain PET can be recycled as clothing fibre and carpet, automotive parts, new bottles, office cubicles, and plastic straps. Cereal box liners or milk jugs made with HDPE can be recycled into new containers, drainage pipes, lawn and garden products, film and sheet plastic, picnic tables, dog houses, and plastic lumber. For LDPE, which usually starts off as squeezable bottles or dry cleaning bags, the end result is recycling into compost bins, trash can liners, shipping envelopes, and floor tiles. Polypropylene can be recycled into battery cables, brooms, brushes, bicycle racks, trays, bins, and rakes. And polystyrene used in disposable plates, cups, and egg cartons can be recycled into packaging material, insulation boards, license plate frames, light switch plates, rulers, carryout containers, and foam packing. 

FOOD GRADE HEADACHE

Brand owners, driven by retail forces such as the Walmart scorecard, are definitely on board as well. “Many brand owners are anxious to market recycled content and are pressing their product suppliers,” said Joe Lapierre, director of sales, marketing, and procurement with Brampton, Ont.-based recycler Nexcycle Plastics Inc. “A lot of this obviously has to with marketing, and also with end-of-life responsibility for the packing that’s getting introduced into society.”

Some recyclers are trying to get their hands on an even more diverse array of post-consumer material. “Markets such as the medical sector usually can’t use recycled resin by law, but we’re in touch with a Quebec hospital that’s interested in finding a way to recycle all of their plastic waste,” said Michel Camirand, general manager of Yamachiche, Que.-based recycler Groupe RCM Inc. “The general perception is that recycling facilities can’t handle post-medical plastic waste, so the hospitals send it either to landfills or incinerators. But we’re working to develop the sorting capabilities to deal with it — provided the material is relatively sterile — and this particular hospital wants to be a part of the process.” 

So far, so good. But despite recyclers’ great ingenuity and entrepreneurial skill, the landscape of some markets remains blurry. Take food grade material. According to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, more than 18 North American recycling companies currently boast the ability to produce consistently high quality, food grade post-consumer resin — but agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. aren’t making it easy for them to do so. “The FDA guidelines assure the safety of post-consumer plastic packaging in contact with food; there tends to be a lack of understanding of the FDA regulations among recycling companies, however, and the FDA itself is not forthcoming with information,” said Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of Envision Plastics, a Reidsville, N.C.-based consulting firm. “They’re so overburdened with other responsibilities relating to other qualifications that teaching recyclers about what’s acceptable and what’s not is low on their list of priorities.” 

In a nutshell, food grade resin producers must develop their own processes to meet the FDA challenge testing, or purchase equipment from companies who have demonstrated to the FDA that their equipment can meet the challenge testing. 

One way or the other, though, they’re getting it done. “Due in part to advances in cleaning and purifying technology and the use of closed-loop processes, there are food contact-approved recycled resins available now that weren’t available just a few short years ago,” said Joe Lapierre. 

NO BOAT TO CHINA

Contrast the excitement in Canada to the situation in China, which had been one of the driving forces for surging plastic scrap prices in 2011. “It’s becoming a much more difficult market to serve,” said a Southern Ontario material recovery facility owner. “Exporters are buying loads to ship to China and Hong Kong, but an increase in tariffs along with weak demand for PET fibre in China have recently led to some major softening in the export market. PET and LDPE film seem to be the two grades being hit the hardest right now.”

So although Shanghai is currently saying no, the market in Canada is sending a different message to plastic recyclers. “Yes, please,” might sum it up.