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Executive Spotlight - Roxanne Vaughan

by ecarranza June 26, 2017

 

Vice President and General Manager, Roplast Industries Inc.

 

Q: What are some of the key trends impacting plastic recyclers today?

A: As the types of products made from post-consumer resin increase, quality of post-consumer resin will be pressured to improve. The markets for products made from post-consumer resin have increased substantially from the more industrial lumber and trash liner markets. It has evolved into many other markets, like reusable carrier bags. In many cases the type of products we produce require specifications close to that of virgin resin. In many cases we have customers that embrace the imperfections of post-consumer and we work hard to promote that. Material collection programs are increasing and with that material sorting infrastructure is starting to improve. Therefore, the demand for these products and the need to improve quality has had a direct effect on material processing technologies. This helps producers such as Roplast increase PCR content.

Q: Where are the greatest areas of opportunity?

A: If a reprocessor has a consistent supply of post-consumer plastic waste and the technology to meet the evolving quality standards then there is likely a market for their material. Despite the argument that plastic film makes up a much smaller portion of the plastic debris found in our oceans by volume, the Ocean Conservatory ranked plastic bags as the 2nd most impactful item to marine life out of all material found in their 2016 International Coast Cleanup Report. Litter is a problem and although the ocean debris issue is largely a global matter, it is not always perceived that way. The industry is faced with an excellent opportunity to work towards viable solutions and increase public education of plastic recycling. The bag ordinances and bad press the industry has received over the ocean de-bris issue should be seized as an excellent economic and public relations opportunity to promote designing products for recyclability and reuse.  I think perhaps the greatest area of opportunity the industry now has is to address the ocean debris issue head-on and evolve our technologies and products to greatly reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in our landfills and water-ways. Unfortunately, I think the industry worked far too hard for too long fighting regulations that were only the result of producers ignoring major environmental issues associated with our products. We are now able to change that.

Q: Is Post-Consumer outpacing Post-Industrial recycling at this point?

A: I think this question would be more accurately answered if there was a way to provide more verifiable and credible universal certification processes for post-consumer resin. The Chain of Custody programs that are available through 3rd Party Verification vary in the methods of collecting data and there is no consistent method among all certifications. In California, the bag bill SB-270 mandates that any plastic reusable grocery bag must be made with a minimum of 20% post-consumer resin. However, the only means to prove the use of this material is through any 3rd Party Independent Certification Program. There are numerous programs and it allows for many suppliers to quickly develop less regulated programs with questionable use of post-consumer.  There is even preliminary research being done involving heat-history fingerprinting to identify if film contains re-cycled material. This is still developing, but certainly research like this needs to be fueled with investment and motivation from regulatory agencies and producers. However, by its nature, there is more post-consumer material available for recycling. Recovery of re-cycled materials has grown exponentially and the quality of this feedstock has increased with better sorting methods and bale specification standards. Overall, I would say absolutely. We are overcoming some major hurdles in recovery and starting to address recovery system issues head on. Plastic film is now starting to be treated as a resource and not a waste product. Post-industrial should always be used as a matter of practicality, but the increase in post-consumer is driving recycling technology and recovery rates.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges facing plastic recyclers today?

A: There are still some major economic challenges with plastics recycling. Technology can evolve to improve quality and regulations are evolving to require PCR, but recyclers need to make money and processors need the material cost to remain affordable. We have seen rather moderate change in virgin resin prices, thus many reprocessors and manufacturers such as ourselves are faced with diminishing affordability of PCR. In a sense, our cost to consume post-consumer pellets can in many cases exceed the cost of virgin resin.

From our reprocessing perspective, the cost of purchasing feedstock waste is also an important factor as we often compete with exporters for our desired PE Clear and white film.  The same is true for the post-consumer material we purchase externally.  Pricing for this material is currently close to that of virgin material for the markets we produce for and the feedstocks we require. Feedstock purchasing has played an important role in this as domestic film recyclers like ourselves are forced to compete with exporters, historically willing to purchase plastic film waste at higher prices. The aim is to create a process flow that allows recyclers to purchase waste at a desired composition and cost for the markets they supply. There are signs of China tightening their restrictions for foreign waste importing as they aim to tackle pollution issues and improve recycling processes.

Another challenge is building an end market for this material. Many brands are now working vigorously to design their packaging to be recyclable. Although this is a huge step in the right direction, there is far less emphasis on incorporating recycled content. It can’t be a one-way stream. Brands that say they take sustainability seriously now need to make the compromises necessary to incorporate this material.

Q: How are regulations impacting the industry?

A: Depending on the material, regulation can have a serious effect on the industry and in some cases, create opportunities for those who are ready to evolve. Most of these regulations could have been avoided if producers had been more proactive in facing some of these environmental issues. I speak more from the plastic bag perspective as that is our market. This is true for the single use bag ban in the State of California. For years producers of plastic bags in the U.S. ignored the mounting concern of plastic waste in our waterways. Although many smaller producers (including outside out of California) worked to promote practical reusable bag and recycling solutions and worked with state and municipal officials to offer industry input, single use bags manufactured outside the state were flooding into California at rates  in excess of reuse or recycling.  Although the passing of SB 270 only affects California, as the sixth largest economy in the world, it will certainly affect the industry. Plastics bags will be made thicker, less aerodynamic, engineered for reuse and made with post-consumer material. It has created an opportunity for those producers able to manufacture reusable plastic bags, but only when it is being properly regulated. This will take some time.

In the meantime, Extended Producer Responsibility is still being actively discussed and was a main topic at the Cal Recycle Workshop in March regarding their mandatory diversion approach for packaging. Extended Producer Responsibility was discussed in detail and it’s likely some form of it associated with Plastics Packaging will be developed within the coming years. The good news is there is opportunity for recyclers and a regulation like SB 270 creates a need for post-consumer material.

Q: Has the business world’s increased focus on sustainability had a big impact on the recycling market? How has this impacted machinery sales?

A: I think the answer is yes and no. We deal with a narrower market, but we have customers on both sides of the spectrum. The companies that focus on sustainability don’t just adopt sustainability initiatives on the surface. They have sustainability departments. Their purchasing decisions are heavily influenced by these departments and they have company-wide metrics for sustainability. They know the products we make will have some level of compromise with aesthetic specification to allow for the use of recycled material.  Their marketing departments help promote their sustainability initiatives and closed loop programs. They are more concerned with how much recycled material we can extrude than they are trying to make their bag aesthetically perfect. These companies are the ones we fit best with but it must obviously be a market that has a customer that also embraces this. These markets and types of products are generally more profitable and incorporate more recycling. This has enabled us to purchase more post-consumer as well as become a reprocessor to take in our customer’s plastic scrap. These customers have essentially changed our business model for the better. The other end of the spectrum is those customers who do not want to seriously integrate sustainability into their products or must simply because legislation requires it. That is a more difficult market for us as there are far less synergies. However, we must be able to produce for both markets.

Q: Looking at recycling machinery, what innovations are we seeing today?

A: The advancement of separation technology including optical, air separators and robotic sorting. From our perspective shredding and blending technology has also come a long way and ultimately will be key in homogenizing blends for optimum quality. The increase in sorting and filtration technology has allowed recyclers to integrate a broader range of plastic feedstock waste. Contamination is an uphill battle for any recycler and the cleaner the recycled material, the more expensive it is.  Speaking from a dry-line recycling perspective, I think we are seeing synergies between reprocessing equipment manufacturers and filtration companies. This yields a better overall process. As an example would be the Starlinger units and the combined use of the Etlinger Filtration System for contaminated plastics. 

Q: Have processors’ attitudes toward using recycled materials changed? Is it better or worse than five years ago?

A: Speaking as a processor and as a recycler, we’ve been actively incorporating recycled material in our products and engineering products for optimum reuse for 27 years. Five years ago, I think the difference may have been it was difficult to find quality post-consumer consistently. We are now able to purchase from a broader range of post-consumer resin producers and now have the capability of manufacturing some of our own post-consumer resin. I think processors are now also more willing to adjust their manufacturing processes to allow for post-consumer introduction. It is a learning curve for many processors and I think we have been far ahead of the curve in R&D.

Q: It comes down to collection rates. Are collection rates still trending upward?

A: Most research indicates that we currently recover 1.4 billion pounds in all of North America. Recovery of post-consumer film has increased by approximately 80 percent in the last 10 years. However, the majority of the post-consumer film recovered is still exported. It’s important that we keep this film here for domestic reprocessing and manufacturing and it appears that demand and regulatory issues in China may drive this. The market for recovered materials must continue to grow.

Q: What is your outlook for the plastic recycling segment in 2017?

A: The Markets dictate demand and quality standards for post-consumer material. Clearly the market for products made from post-consumer has increased. However, post-consumer resin must continue to be an affordable option when compared to other sources of resin to ensure that a larger market for this material is sustained. There is a dire need to expand public education on plastic recycling to increase residential recycling. Material Recovery Facilities, (MRF’s) need to expand their recovery efforts into higher generation businesses to feed cleaner material to recyclers. Many have argued that there should be more consideration in sorting plastic film through the recovery bins at MRFs. It’s a dirty business, but any plastic film that ends up in a landfill at the end of the day is a waste of resource.

Overall, the economics of plastic recycling is improving but may need some regulatory push or a revolution in brand packaging. Plastics recycling holds the key to eliminating the disposable stigma that has been created due to consumers’ poor habits. However, as plastic recycling develops, the industry must work towards verifiable methods verifying the use of post-consumer resin. There must be a credible way for recyclers, producers, regulatory agencies and businesses to have visibility to how much post-consumer is used and how it is sourced. Without that, producers and recyclers for these products are at a huge disadvantage against imported and often unregulated products with unsubstantiated post-consumer claims

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