Plastic six pack rings, styrofoam, plastic hangers, plastic wrap, ziplock bags, and bread bags all fall into a non traditional category. Are these plastic items recyclable or not?
The Plastics Recycling 2015 Conference was held in Dallas the last week in February. Plastic professionals from all over the world including China, Nepal, and Italy, gathered to talk economic growth, sustainability, and the future of the plastic recycling industry.
The industry relies upon raw materials, from consumers, to sustain their business. The challenge is balancing a steady stream of raw materials with cost efficient methods to return materials back into consumer products. The industry needs to compete at a cost equal to or less than products made from virgin materials. Low oil prices are not helping. Low oil prices decrease the cost of virgin materials making it more cost efficient to buy virgin rather than recycled products.
What products are recyclable is all based on your local communities processing facilities, ability to pick up raw materials, and transportation. Currently in Dallas, the non traditional items are not recyclable through the curbside single stream blue bin program. Just because a product is not currently taken in your area does not mean that product is not recyclable. The recycling industry just hasn’t come up with a solution to easily recycle it, or the processing facilities are too great a distance away from collection to be cost efficient.
New creative technologies and methods are being developed to recycle non traditional items which could change the items you can throw in your recycle bin. A community in California recently piloted an “energy bag” program in which non traditional items (such as plastic spoons, cereal box liners and squeezable pouches) were placed into a separate purple bag within the bins. The three month pilot program resulted in nearly 8,000 energy bags collected totaling approximately three tons of material kept out of the waste stream. The possible changes are not a nuisance, it’s less waste going into our landfills.
Another hot topic at the conference was contamination. How dirty is too dirty? This is also unique to the facilities in your community and what they can handle. The industry is searching for a better answer through investigating a life cycle analysis of virgin plastics “from cradle to grave”. Steve Alexander, Executive Director of The Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers, explained this research would look at answering the ultimate question of “is recycling that material worth it” and look at contamination rates across different facilities. The last analysis of it’s type was done 5-6 years ago, which in a fast evolving industry, has already become outdated.
Recycling in our communities takes research based processes and collaboration across community organizations. I sat in the morning session led by a panel of plastic recycling executives who asked the large crowd to raise their hand if they were from a local or state government. One person of hundreds raised their hand. Without collaboration from the city governments who mainly pick up and transport recyclables, businesses, non profit organizations, and community members, the success of recycling will remain stagnant.
Community members are vital to the equation and educating our public on the proper techniques to recycle products is key. I was impressed with the immense data presented on the success and failures of how each message from a simple graphic to a video, that is disseminated to the public, can cast a positive or negative light on recycling. I was just as intrigued as Kim Holmes, director of recycling for The Plastic Industry Trade Association said, “(plastic bag) bans just don’t really move us forward in the direction we want to go.” Instead of utilizing a ban that casts a negative connotation of recycling, they encouraged a more comprehensive approach to mitigate litter and providing recycling incentives.
Dallas may not be in the lead in recycling technologies but after hearing the progress from New York City leaders of their “Recycle Everything” campaign that has taken the city to the forefront, I’m excited for our city to pursue similar collaborative measures. When we do, I just hope it’s backed by strong research based knowledge and input from industry professionals.
As seen in the Katy Trail Weekly.