Plastics Identification Needs – Green Growth Drivers
Rapid growth and interest in plastics recycling from waste professionals and recycling organizations, like the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), has increased the plastics recycling and recovery rates. In fact, a Green Nature article points to a 4x increase in non-bottled, plastics recovery rates in the US from 2007 to 2011, and the rates are still climbing. As a result, there is a growing need for plastics identification and sorting technologies within the scrap recycling industry.
There have been two noteworthy global growth drivers (among others) that have spurred this interest in recycled plastic, and in finding technologies to accurately identify the plastic: China’s Green Fence and the European Commission’s Green Paper.
China’s Green Fence Initiative
First we’ll talk about China’s Green Fence. China is the largest importer of plastic scrap. The country cannot satisfy its demand for plastic relying on primary production, so it must import scrap. In 2012 a record was set for recycled material imports into China — exceeding virgin resin. In spite of the economic slowdown, recycled plastic imports into China grew by 6%. However, as reported in an article by Jason Margolis, a reporter for PRI – in which he interviewed Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute in Los Angeles:
“…around a quarter of the bottles, cans, and paper we were sending there were getting mixed in with too much food and trash, or even comingled with the wrong type of recycling. The bottles, cans, and cardboard that couldn’t be recycled ended up in Chinese landfills.”
“Last year, China decided it’d had enough of being the world’s trash dump. They enacted a new policy: they call it the ‘Green Fence.’… They would reject shipments at ports if they were too contaminated,” explains Collins. “So from the perspective of the recyclers that were operating in the United States that meant that they had paid money and put materials on a ship, the materials came back to them, which meant that they didn’t receive the revenue from selling the scrap materials.”
As a result, about 70% of all incoming containers are subjected to careful inspection.
The Green Fence initiative – which was enforced throughout 2013 – caused the global plastic scraps industry to export elsewhere and to work hard to expand recycling automation and improve waste sorting.
Portable identification technologies, like handheld (Near Infra Red) NIR material analyzers, can be used to rapidly screen and identify a variety of polymers, plastics and fiber types on-site to streamline inspection without compromising accuracy and quality.
European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment
A similar growth driver is happening in Europe, which is being swamped by a tide of low value plastic waste. In July of 2013, the European Commission launched an initiative called the “Green Paper on a European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment” – which was the start of a broad public reflection on possible responses to all public policy challenges posed by plastic waste and which were presently not specifically or not effectively addressed in European waste legislation. The Commission was concerned that: “Plastic waste has started to attract increased public attention, notably due to a growing number of reports about marine litter. An estimated amount of more than 100.000 t, mostly so-called micro-plastics, is floating in the world’s oceans. This is a great concern in particular since plastic and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), such as pesticides, concentrated on the surface of micro-plastics could enter the food chain. The potential environmental effects of this phenomenon are only beginning to be fully understood.”
Mentioned in the Green Paper is a chapter on empowering consumers to know what they buy. In this targeting of consumer behavior, manufacturers may become responsible for informing consumers of the plastic content of a product and its potentially harmful additives/colors, their influence on recyclability and necessary precautions for the use of products.
Identify Plastic Before it Goes OUT the Door or Comes INTO the Facility
Conceivably, manufacturers could have to identify the plastic before it goes out the door, and scrap metal recyclers and manufacturers who use scrap plastic would have to identify the plastic before it goes into their facility, or at least be able to rapidly and accurately identify it and sort it once it does. It’s no surprise that the Commission called for “tenders for a pilot project to develop new recycling …technological solutions for the sorting and material recycling of mixed plastic waste.”
Whether it’s China, Europe, the US, or third world countries, the plastic industry and the scrap recycling industry will need to team up to find the best technologies for identifying and sorting the various kinds of plastics and polymers and keeping them out of the landfills.
Read about a plastics identification and sorting technology used by the scrap recycling industry.