Some hands got messy on this one. But researchers behind a new study believe their sometimes dirty work can help spur on additional plastic recycling.
Called the 2015 National Mixed Rigid Bale Composition Study, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers commissioned Moore Recycling Associates, a consulting firm, to literally dig through and separate nearly two dozen bales of recycled plastics to find out just what was inside.
The idea behind the project is pretty simple. Getting a good handle on the contents of different types of mixed rigid plastics bales will help spur both interest and investment in that market.
The kinds of plastic products that compose these mixed rigid bales include items like buckets, lids, nursery pots, containers, bulky items, tubes, cups and even bottles. Depending on sorting equipment and items collected, there are plenty of different content combination possibilities.
Folks sorted a total of 23 bales last fall and early this year at two locations in California, one in Alabama and one in Canada.
Those bales, separated into 10 bale types, weighed between 400 and 1,500 pounds each and were sorted by resin and product type.
This is up close and personal and sometimes dirty work, with folks relying on sight, feel and sound to identify much of the material, but relying a hand-held resin identification unit when needed.
Patty Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates, took part in an APR webinar to discuss the study and its potential impact.
She said there are a couple of good reasons to do the work. Some plastic recyclers have undertaken their own bale studies, but having third-party information available to the marketplace is valuable, she said.
“To have a publicly available study that they can point to helps them with the investment,” she said, that is needed to collect more and different types of recycled plastics. “I believe that is a huge piece of this.”
“Secondary to that is the fact that we can now, with additional confidence, we can take the data that we get on how much mixed material is generated in this country and then apply percentages to that mixed material based on its individual bale type with confidence,” Moore said.
Proving how much of what recycled plastic is typically in the various types of mixed bales helps prove the potential amount of material available for recovery.
Material recovery facilities, aimed with information from the study, can better decide whether they want to process mixed rigid plastics, said Mylinda Jacobson, purchasing manager of Envision Plastics, which was one of the bale sort host sites.
“I think there’s opportunities to increase the bottom line of the MRFs by collecting some more of this stuff and handling it,” she said.
For recyclers, deciding whether or not to add a new material to process becomes a chicken-or-egg proposition, said Liz Bedard, director of APR’s rigid plastic recycling program.
Do recyclers wait for an adequate supply before building infrastructure to handle the material? Or do they install the needed systems to help spur development of a particular market?
“We really felt strongly that with that composition information we would be able to foster collection to increase the amount of material that’s being recycled. Good composition data can help MRFs decide to expand beyond bottles. It can help cities decide to expand beyond bottles. And just as important as that, help with supporting investment in non-bottle recycling infrastructure,” Bedard said.
“We really see this bale sort study as one way of helping plastic reclaimers understand what’s out there in the bales and perhaps base their investment on that,” Bedard said.
The latest report, which follows a similar study in 2011, provides additional details to help recyclers make those decisions, she said.
An executive summary of the report is available on the APR website. APR is selling the full 51-page report.