Recycling Plastics: The Big Picture: Despite challenges, recycling is making gains - Aug/Sep 2017

By Darius Helm

The recycling of materials is a difficult and often low-margin business, requiring its own infrastructure-reverse distribution, collection, sorting, processing and recycling into new products for which there must be a viable market. And these recycled products compete against products made of virgin materials, so they’re hostage to the vagaries of virgin material costs.

Anything from falling crude oil prices to increases in refining and polymerization capacities can narrow the delta between virgin and recycled materials or erase it entirely, driving out of business all those collectors, sorters, processers and recyclers. It happens all the time. It’s been happening in the carpet reclamation industry for the last couple of years. That’s the reason that organizations like CARE (the Carpet America Recovery Effort) and CalRecycle have struggled so vigorously to establish assessments and subsidies in the California market, and that’s why the other 49 states are subsidized through the mills by a voluntary product stewardship agreement.

Much of the flooring industry is heavily tied to the use of a range of polymers, from nylon, polyester and polypropylene fibers to polyethylene, polyurethane and PVC in many forms. So it’s worth it to step back and look at the big picture. Synthetic polymers last for eons; they’re not going anywhere. And they don’t just accumulate in landfills. They enter the oceans at a rate of 14 billion pounds a year. And the bulk of them end up circulating in five massive gyres in the middle of the oceans, killing fish and destroying ecosystems. There’s a remote uninhabited atoll in the South Pacific called Henderson Island, a World Heritage Site, whose beaches are choked with plastic debris. According to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences co-authored by Jennifer Lavers, a researcher at the University of Tasmania, its beaches contain 21 to 671 pieces of plastic per square yard.

In recent years, as transparency has become more prominent in manufacturers’ green programs, recycling and reclamation efforts have often been shifted from the core of the conversation about environmental sustainability. But the reuse of raw materials and the elimination of waste could not be more fundamental to the endeavor of creating a greener planet.

This is not to say that manufacturers and others have abandoned the issue. Far from it. But there are trends in sustainability, just like there are trends in any major undertaking, and where the industry and the built environment are most focused right now is on transparency and healthy buildings. Recyclability and recycled content are embedded within them to varying degrees, but they rarely drive the discussion.

Nevertheless, it’s incumbent on everyone from producers to users of synthetics to play a role not just in reducing the use of plastics but also in recapturing the waste streams and creating products from them. And that’s exactly what everyone from the recycling entrepreneurs and to the stewardship councils and organizations are working hard on every day. It doesn’t always make the headlines, but it lies at the heart of creating a green circular economy.

CARE’s 2016 annual report offered mixed results. For instance, while total discards were up marginally (1.8%), there was a dip in total volume of recycled and reused carpet, and the total diversion rate fell over 6%. However, material sent back to landfills was down 9%. And 72% of recycled materials were used in resin and molding applications, up from 65% the previous year. Since its founding in 2002, CARE members have diverted from landfills more than 4.6 billion pounds of post-consumer carpet. Unfortunately, 6% more jobs were lost in the reclamation and recycling industry last year, with at least five companies shutting down either their entire recycling operations or the residential portions.

The good news is that new technologies and new end-use markets for recycled materials continue to be developed. And some longer-term initiatives have been launched, though it may take a few years for them to bear fruit. One of the most promising is a program to put post-consumer PET carpet fiber into nonwoven applications. The Nonwovens Institute of North Carolina State University has accepted a CARE grant for a three-year research study to figure out what types of products recycled PET carpet fiber could be used for. Nonwovens are used in a wide range of applications, from geo-textiles to filters to carpet backings. Melt-blown nonwovens are particularly promising, since they can handle higher contamination levels and lower intrinsic viscosity than, say, spunbonded nonwovens. But the main reason that the Nonwovens Institute program is so promising is that it doesn’t put the onus for research and development costs on potential manufacturers, which are generally reluctant to make that kind of commitment.

The most dynamic market for carpet recycling is in California, where a 25-cent fee is currently assessed on every yard of carpet sold, with the funds channeled into subsidies for the processing and recycling of carpet. It has been six years since California introduced extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation through AB 2398, working with CARE as the carpet stewardship organization-at the beginning, the assessment was only a nickel a yard. It has been a constant struggle to meet the demands of CalRecycle, particularly as the ratio of PET carpet has swelled, choking up many operations and driving some out of business.

Over the last year, a series of five-year plans submitted by CARE have been rejected by CalRecycle based on a range of issues surrounding continuous meaningful improvement, including clarity on how objectives will be achieved and how they will be funded. CARE now has until October 19 to submit a plan to meet all of CalRecycle’s demands. This time around, CARE is confident that its plan will be accepted. It’s likely that assessments will again be increased, though the concept of some sort of cap will need to be introduced. Also, the subsidy structure will need to be revised, probably in the form of tiered subsidies. Subsidies will decrease as volumes increase, so the bigger the recycler, the smaller the subsidy. This should be a fairly viable business model for recyclers, since it will counterbalance the economies of scale that larger recyclers enjoy.

Mills are concerned because they feel that the assessments put them at a disadvantage against competing floorcoverings in the California market, and they cite industry statistics showing that California’s carpet sales are slipping faster than the national average. The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) commissioned a report by Bates White Economic Consulting to analyze the issue earlier this summer. The report concluded that the assessment fee has had “a significant, negative impact on California carpet shipments.” Part of the reason, according to the report, is because of high price elasticity of demand for carpet shipped to California, meaning that demand is highly responsive to changes in price. According to CRI, the price elasticity is due to access to alternative, competing product like other types of flooring. Other product categories assessed in California, like paint, batteries and tires, don’t face the same in-category competition and thus are less price elastic.

However, it’s worth noting that, while the report states that its analysis incorporated variables “that might impact carpet demand differently in California than in the rest of the United States,” nowhere in the entire report is the issue of LVT even mentioned.

LVT is significant for a couple of reasons. One is that it is easily the fastest growing flooring category, and one of the biggest categories it is taking share from is carpet-including in price-sensitive markets like multifamily housing. The second is that imports make up the majority of domestic LVT consumption, and the bulk of imports-heavily weighted toward the low end-come from Asia, entering the U.S. through California ports like Long Beach. So it stands to reason that any analysis that stakeholders are going to rely on to judge whether assessments are negatively impacting California’s carpet sales would be incomplete if it did not at the very least examine whether the fact that the bulk of the nation’s LVT supply is funneled through California would impact LVT availability and price, thereby making LVT more competitive against carpet than in the rest of the nation.

In states other than California, the mills support the recycling industry through a voluntary product stewardship (VPS) program. The program was launched at the beginning of 2015, paying out $0.02/pound subsidy on any fiber type sold for recycling, along with a one cent subsidy for energy conversion, and it has been renewed every year since. The VPS budget has been renewed for 2018 as well, at $4 million. The 2016 fund was not fully paid out, and the balance was used to subsidize the cost of entrepreneur meetings, including costs incurred by the entrepreneurs themselves. And entrepreneur fees for CARE membership for 2017 were cut 90% to $100.

Per the agreement with CalRecycle, recycled output in California was supposed to hit 16% by the end of 2016, but it only made it to 11%. However, in the first quarter of 2017, output was at 16.3%, and CARE hopes to record even better results in subsequent quarters, so there’s reason to believe that the EPR program in California is gaining steam. And CARE also anticipates that its new Double Green program will help drive California recycling. Double Green is a marketing program for products that use California-derived post-consumer carpet content along with an additional post-consumer content material. This could help drive sales of materials once considered almost worthless in the recycling stream, like calcium carbonate, which is subsidized to the tune of $0.17/pound. For instance, rubber mats using recycled tires and recycled calcium carbonate would qualify.

Also, several new recycling operations are being developed. Aquafil is building a recycling center in Phoenix, Arizona that will separate carpet into its components, and sell non-nylon material to local markets. And early in 2018, XT Green is scheduled to open in Rancho Cucamonga, 50 miles from Los Angeles. The facility will start by processing nylon carpet, both commercial and residential, with expansion to PET carpet later in the year. Its patented technology uses an aqueous environment to process carpet, yielding a high-purity recycled output. The first phase (nylon) will have an annual capacity of 40 million pounds of post-consumer carpet, and the firm anticipates recycling rates as high as 90%, including calcium carbonate filler.

Another California recycler has added a sifting line to capture calcium carbonate, and at least one more is considering it. And another plans to add three new processing lines to increase the quality of fiber output, focused on nylon. And a major player, Clear Carpet Recycling, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has added capacity to process more material, including nylon, PET and polypropylene.

As mentioned earlier, the fastest growing product in flooring over the last several years has been LVT, and it’s growing even faster now due to huge demand for WPC (wood polymer composite) and rigid LVT, new constructions notable for their rigidity and ease of installation. They’re thicker than flexible LVT and generally offer the same waterproof characteristics.

LVT is a PVC-based product, and PVC is hardly a popular product among the environmentally minded. However, it’s worth noting that vocal resistance to vinyl products from end users and the A&D community has noticeably subsided in recent years, largely because they all really like the new LVTs on the market, and they want to use them.

Nevertheless, a major ingredient in PVC is chlorine, and that’s a major chemical of concern. Also, PVC additives have been a problem, including heavy metals and, most notably, phthalates. Lab tests on phthalates like DEHP have shown that they can disrupt mammalian endocrine systems, resulting in various developmental problems.

Though the specific phthalates most commonly used in vinyl flooring, like DINP, have not been directly implicated, the potential and perceived harm was enough for the industry as a whole to eliminate phthalates as plasticizers and shift instead to terephthalates like DOTP and bio-based alternatives. All of the major vinyl manufacturers, and most of the vinyl producers in the market, no longer use phthalates.

However, this has created a challenge in the greening of vinyl flooring. PVC is a thermoplastic, like nylon, PET and other ingredients common in flooring, which means that it can be remelted and turned into new product. But there’s little in the way of post-consumer recycling right now because the entire waste stream is contaminated by phthalates. So producers, as a whole, make their products from virgin PVC.

The vinyl being installed these days is, by and large, fully recyclable, but it will be years before it has gone through its lifecycle and is ready for reclamation. One has to wonder, though, how collectors at that point will be able to distinguish between older floors that contain phthalates and the newer floors that don’t pose a risk to the recycling stream. Vinyl producers would do well to start creating shareable inventory databases or figure out a way to back-label their materials.

One new entity that intends to help lead the PVC industry toward a greener future is the Vinyl Business and Sustainability Council (VBSC). In June 2016, at the Vinyl Matters Sustainability Summit, the Vinyl Institute gathered about 55 board members from the various PVC trade associations to discuss sustainability and the need for a collaborative organization platform to work together on sustainability development issues, and the new council was formed, with all trade associations as automatic members.

The U.S. produces about 15 billion pounds of PVC annually, exporting about 30%. Out of the 10.5 billion pounds remaining, 70% goes into building and construction as rigid PVC, including pipes, and the balance is made into softer, flexible applications, and a little over 4% of that goes into interior building products like flooring.

Most of the rigid PVC lasts for decades and is often buried underground, so it’s not recycled. Of the one billion pounds that are recycled annually, 90% is post-industrial, so 100 million pounds of post-consumer content is generated every year. The material itself is easily recyclable, and can be separated from most other plastics because of its lower melting point and the fact that it sinks in water. The main barriers to PVC recyclability are more about how much recycled content in various applications is acceptable by the relevant industries and markets.

The VBSC is already moving quickly, analyzing the industry, assessing materiality, and poring over recent studies and publications. Then it will select a handful of goals to focus on and identify critical market segments. At the end of the day, the council is looking for a common approach in terms of how to navigate sustainability. This November, the industry will come together at Vinyl 360, its annual meeting, where the focus will be on sustainability. The VBSC will review the data and information it has gathered, and, hopefully, it will paint the big picture and help the entire PVC industry move forward together and begin large-scale consolidated efforts to make vinyl greener.

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