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Sorting Out the Problems of Recycling Plastic Waste

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you think a plastic bottle is a plastic bottle? Think again. It could be a PET bottle, or an HDPE bottle or a polypropylene bottle. You don’t care? Well, the people in the fledgling business of plastic recycling do, and if they had their way, you would, too.

Contrary to popular belief, plastic is easy to recycle, but only after it’s separated by type. Sorting the more than 10 million tons of plastic that’s discarded annually is no easy feat, and nobody expects consumers to be concerned about the difference between polystyrene and polyethylene any time soon.

But major plastics vendors and a host of eager entrepreneurs are racing to solve this and other obstacles that stand in the way of widespread plastic recycling. Big companies such as Du Pont, Dow Chemical and Union Carbide--sometimes in conjunction with waste-hauling firms--are establishing large recycling plants for certain kinds of plastics.

And entrepreneurs, including William Baskind of Replatec in Anaheim and Gary Delaurentis of Bags Again Inc. in San Mateo, are developing methods for turning heaps of undifferentiated plastic into profitable material. Though no process can handle all of the dozen major types of plastic resin, progress is being made in sorting--and in some cases blending--different kinds of plastic.

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Much of the activity is driven less by the complex economics of recycling than by environmental imperatives.

“Plastic recycling is going to be mandated,” said Peter Mooney, vice president for plastics at Business Communications Co., a solid-waste consulting company in Norwalk, Conn. “It’s hard to make money on it, but we’ve got to find ways to minimize the losses.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures show that plastics account for 18% of all municipal solid waste by volume and 7.2% by weight. And, justly or not, plastics are perceived as an environmental nightmare, an especially ugly form of trash that never goes away. Some local governments--notably in Suffolk County, N.Y.--have even moved to ban some types of plastics, though such efforts have become stalled in court.

The plastics industry, eager to counter the bad publicity, sees recycling--which absorbs only about 1% of all discarded plastic--as an answer.

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Du Pont Co. and Waste Management Inc., a large hazardous waste and refuse hauling company, last year established a joint venture to recycle two types of plastic--PET, used to make soda bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used in stiff applications such as milk jugs.

PET has the highest recycling value of all plastics. In California, state law mandates that PET bottles have a redemption value of 5 cents for containers over 24 ounces and half that for smaller ones.

The Du Pont/Waste Management venture now has operational plants in Chicago and Philadelphia, and the venture plans three more, including one on the West Coast. The partnership hopes to become profitable within a year, said spokesman Bill Plunkett. It already has a big leg up in achieving that goal: It deals only with the most valuable types of plastics, and it has a guaranteed customer--Du Pont--for all the recycled material.

Union Carbide Chemicals & Plastics Co. will go a step further, with a large recycling facility in New Jersey. When it opens next year, it will recycle low-density polyethylene from wraps and bags, as well as PET and HDPE. As with the Du Pont-Waste Management venture, Union Carbide will absorb the expense of sorting and cleaning the plastics.

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The National Polystyrene Recycling Co., a joint venture of eight large manufacturers of Styrofoam-like plastics, has a different set of challenges. NPRC, which concentrates on foam containers used in the food service industry, has a plant in operation near Boston and plans six more, including one in Los Angeles, by year-end, said President Jim Schneiders.

Schneiders declined to project when NPRC might break into the black. He did say, however, that the company’s biggest difficulty has been collecting enough discarded foam. “The overall economics of collection--that’s where we’ll have to do most of the work,” he said.

These efforts, however, will still leave much of the plastic waste stream flowing into landfills. HDPE accounts for just 20% of discarded plastics, polystyrene about 16% and PET 5%. About a quarter of all plastic waste is low-density polyethylene. Polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride account for 15.5% and 6.6%, respectively.

That’s where start-up companies such as Bags Again come in. The San Mateo, Calif., firm buys loads of unsorted plastic and ships it to a plant in China, said founder and President Gary Delaurentis. There, the low-density polyethylene is made into plastic bags and the high-density polyethylene into pellets that are sold to plastic-product manufacturers. The remainder of the material is sold to local reprocessors.

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“We’ve had a hard time getting market acceptance,” lamented Delaurentis. He said it’s difficult to sell the bags or the pellets profitably in competition with “virgin” resin products, but he expects that to change as governments begin to mandate use of recycled products.

One problem he doesn’t have is finding enough plastic. He has developed a network of suppliers around the country who sell him the “feedstock.” Many are “material recovery facilities” that have sprung up over the past year to broker material from increasingly common city-run curbside recycling programs.

Bags Again buys about 250 tons of waste plastic a month and turns away 2,000 tons, Delaurentis said. The company pays from $40 to $80 a ton, which doesn’t cover the cost of collection but helps compensate a waste-hauler who might otherwise pay to dump the material in a landfill.

Unlike Bags Again, some small plastics recyclers have complained that they do not have enough material.

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Baskind of Replatec in Orange County has a different idea about what to do with mixed batches of plastics. He has joined a growing group of companies that are attempting to reprocess “co-mingled” streams of plastic waste into “plastic lumber,” which could be used for park benches, pool decks and for other purposes.

Baskind said his firm is negotiating a joint venture agreement with a waste-hauler who will put up the $2 million to $3 million necessary to establish the plastic lumber plant. He’s confident that he will find plenty of buyers for the product, which will cost half again as much as natural lumber but less than the treated wood that must be used for many outdoor applications.

“We can take every kind of plastic and use our proprietary chemistry to compatibilize it,” Baskind said. “Everyone else just wants the PET and the HDPE.”

But Baskind’s process is not yet proven, and he won’t be alone in the plastic lumber business. Several East Coast firms are using a process called ET-1, developed in West Germany, to turn co-mingled plastic waste into lumber, and the market for the product has not yet been established.

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Indeed, Baskind said that despite the plastic firms’ efforts, it’s not clear that the market for even “pure” recycled resins will be strong enough to support the cost of sorting and collection any time soon--even if the industry realizes its goal of developing new uses for recycled material.

MUNICIPAL WASTE BY TYPE

Plastics rank sixth by weight among the different types of garbage found in a typical city landfill.

Paper: 35.6%

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Yard Waste: 20.1%

Food waste: 8.9%

Metals: 8.9%

Glass: 8.4%

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Plastics: 7.3%

Wood: 4.1%

Other: 6.6%


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