Over the past year, global markets for recyclables have shifted causing a rippling effect that has hindered recycling programs across the country. As a result, many Ohio communities have seen a recent increase in the cost for recycling programs which has led to speculation regarding the future sustainability of their programs.
Thankfully, recycling is alive and well in central Ohio and has been relatively unaffected by these changes. During last month’s Summit on Sustainability, hosted by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, SWACO brought to together leaders from P&G and Rumpke Waste & Recycling to discuss the state of recycling in Franklin County.
Steve Sargent, director of recycling at Rumpke Waste and Recycling, discussed how in recent years, China consumed 55% of the world’s scrap paper and was a major destination for other recyclables. With changes to restrict the levels of contaminated materials now being accepted by the country, many communities are struggling to keep recycling programs afloat.
“For years, China has been the single largest consumer of recyclable materials exported by the U.S.,” said Steve Sargent, Rumpke director of recycling. “The Chinese government is trying to improve their environmental standards by banning anything that could come in and negatively impact that effort.”
Central Ohio’s residential recycling programs have been primarily insulated from those changes thanks in large part to the fact that 98% of the markets secured by Rumpke are located in the United States with many being right here in Ohio. This has resulted in stability in Franklin County’s residential recycling programs.
SWACO’s director of Innovation and Programs, Kyle O’Keefe, who moderated the panel. He shared insights into how the U.S., with limited international markets available, can leverage international policy changes to create new lines of business for new and expanding recycling-reliant companies. O’Keefe noted that last year, SWACO completed an economic impact study which documented nearly 400 recycling-reliant businesses in central Ohio region, supporting more than 5,000 jobs and contributing over $1.3 billion in annual revenue to the local economy. Supporting these businesses and the circular economy, as well as attracting new and emerging companies to our region continues to be an important part of keeping recycling alive.
Ohio-based Procter & Gamble, one the largest consumer goods companies in the world, has committed to reducing plastic waste and increasing the use of recycled-content packaging as part of its Ambition 2030 goal.
During the Summit, P&G packaging expert, Brent Heist discussed the company’s efforts including P&G’s development of a new game-changing technology that can recycle polypropylene -- a type of plastic that is currently difficult to recycle. Polypropylene is one of the Top 3 plastic resins used in the world, found in shampoo caps, pour spouts on laundry detergent, luggage, carpets, razor handles, yogurt pots, stadium cups and more. It holds onto odor and contaminants and today recycled polypropylene can be made only into low-value gray products like park benches and flower pots.
“Looking across the industry, we recognized that a robust supply of good quality recycled polypropylene was missing. P&G and other manufacturers of consumer goods would use recycled polypropylene, creating a strong demand for the material, if a steady supply was available,” says Heist.
Enter P&G scientist John Layman, who invented a way to recycle polypropylene to a pure, virgin-like resin. To drive scale, P&G licensed the technology to PureCycle Technologies so a broad range of companies can use the recycled material. PureCycle is planning to open its first facility that will utilize the technology in Hanging Rock, Ohio and be fully operational in 2021. The PureCycle plant is expected to purify and recycle 119 million pounds of polypropylene and produce 105 million pounds each year.
The demand for recycled material, which will continue to grow, represents a significant economic opportunity. Currently, only two kinds of plastic, PET and HDPE, are economically viable for recyclers, and recycled PET is likely to be 1 billion pounds short of supply in the U.S. by 2025. The Recycling Partnership is predicting that a $250 million investment is needed to improve residential waste-collection equipment, educate consumers and improve the collection of plastics at materials recovery facilities, which would result in a true circular economy.
We must keep in mind that all recycled materials, including plastics, are commodities that are bought and sold on the open market. These markets drive the economics of recycling and, like all markets, they are vulnerable to disruptions at the local, national, and global levels. Our national recycling system is in the process of experiencing a market disruption and adapting to find new solutions. Ultimately it is the demand for recycled content in the products we purchase that will help to determine the solutions for building a more resilient circular economy. As individuals and organizations, we all play an important role in growing this demand through the use of our purchasing power and advocacy.