A safety tightrope walk

Post-consumer PET recycling in Ohio

Running a full capacity of 60-65 million lbs a year and established for 25 years in recycling plants, Lori Carson, Director Commercial Operations, at Phoenix Technologies has gotten  to know many of the problems that can crop up in the post-consumer recycling industry. Starting up the plant in the first place that was the big challenge. In 1993 the company was founded as a resin plant producing 5 million lbs of resin, quickly expanded and now has two plants: one sorting, one resin plant with 100 staff.

By Heike Fischer

 June 2018, We met Lori Carson, Director Commercial Operations at Phoenix Technologies

Right from the beginning Phoenix kept in close contact with the sustainability department of the city’s government in Wood County, where Lori also sits on the solid waste board. They are the only recycler representatives together with people representing the collection side. The county seat is Bowling Green, where a collection centre is located just across the street from the plant. This is also the drop-off centre for waste collections from surrounding towns, and for other venues such as trade fair waste. According to Lori, the system works well because everyone knows everyone else. “We are constantly asking ourselves how we can improve and we try to be good neighbours. We work hard to achieve this because it’s the only way to ensure we get good cooperation.”

“We still buy clean flake material from the outside. The line is under-capacity for our resin plant, a deliberate decision, as this enables us to go into the marketplace and buy any special quality we might need. We had some partners to whom we made commitments, and it just made sense to keep relationships with them.”  STF is the equipment supplier, and they installed their largest line. Lori told us that they chose STF because they operate their own lines, so they are very much aware of all the challenges that can occur. The sorting equipment is a combination of S+S and Buhler, who were recommended by STF.  “We sent our material to Germany, to undergo trials, because US bales are different to European, to make sure the line could process them acceptably.”

Market situation

In the US, PET and HDPE are the materials which are mainly recycled, and Lori sees these streams continuing to grow. For two years, it has been an extremely challenging market: virgin resin has been very competitive economically, pricing has been extremely challenging for recyclers especially in the United States to meet. “The positive to our startup period was learning when raw material pricing was low!” she states.

In the US, the recycling rate is very low at 28 or 29%. These rates are reported in cooperation with the APR (Association of post-consumer plastic recycling) and the ACC (American Chemistry Council). Lori explained  “Every year, the commission carries out a study which collects and compiles the data from the entire industry, and that’s how we get the recycling rate. It could be slightly off if they don’t have all the recycling data, but the rate has been constant at around the 30% mark for quite a while now.”

There is lots of discussion how to get the recycling rates up in the US. In about 8-10 of some of the bigger States, a bottle deposit scheme exists, e.g. New England states, New York, Michigan, Oregon, and California among others have enacted some bottle deposit laws, and Hawaii also has bottle deposit laws. “In those states, the recycling rate is 70%, which just goes to show how awful the average 30% rate really is! That’s where the challenge lies!” Lori pointed out. “It is not the ability to recycle, because we can – there are companies like us in the market, the problem is the collection side, how can we grow more supply?”

How to improve collection

The S+S Color Separator at the plant in Bowling Green, Ohio

“30% is used to support the industry: the problem with it is economics. If there is not enough material and supply is always limited than it’s about the price. Quality is key objective, but when demand is higher than supply, it’s a lot about price. That makes your recycling resin get out of kilter with the price of virgin material. If the price is too far out, demand begins to shrink as users revert to virgin material.” Lori explained.  Big brands, like Coca Cola, Pepsi and Nestlé are trying to work on the supply side. In the US there are industry supported organisations like The Closed Loop Fund and the Recycling Partnership. The idea of these entities is to be able to assist communities, recyclers and others with investment that helps increase the recycling rates, for instance, providing assistance for recycling carts in a community. “There is also a dialogue about EPR (extended producers responsibility) in the US, whether it will happen I’m not sure, but some things have to done differently in order for the supply to grow.”

Challenges in local recycling

The radius where Phoenix Technologies gets most material from is 500 miles: Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois in the Mid-West. “Our customer base is also in a 500 mile radius. We think about collect and convert locally. 8 hours may not seem local, but for the US it is fairly local. It makes no sense to ship material from California here, the footprint is too big. Because bale quality is such that you might only recognise 65% good feedstock, it is not sensible to pay to ship that 35% that does not have much value. We really look where we source from and we keep a very close eye on the whole footprint. During the process we produce little that goes to landfill. Today, it is so hard to make all the pieces usable, we can find a home for everything, but it takes time to find such homes.”

“We do not change our suppliers a lot because we spend so much time building up good relationships, trying all the time to make improvements. They want to send as much PET as possible, they know they cannot do 100% but they measure too, so our feedback is verification for their measurement system. We use our flakes to make resin and we know what we need to make our resin, so we can run different specifications of flakes. We also have green bales which are used primarily for strapping. For flakes, we can sack it up for shipping or put it in a silo and from there it is taken to our resin plant a kilometre away.”

Recycling colours in the US

In the US recycling of colour is clear, green and blue and amber; amber, for beer bottles. In total the market has many different colours outside of the green, blue, and amber. So what to do with these bottles? We have investigated Chemical Recycling: “Today (as of this interview) there is no independent commercial facility to my knowledge, they are in startup, but as yet there is no commercial facility,” says Lori.

In the end there is a lot of hope: “We hope to grow, hope to be more efficient, hope for development on the machinery because every human hand is hard to find. And there is work that should have not be done by humans, instead placing them where they can add more value. The city also hopes that we will grow.”

Expansion plans: “Another plant is not out of the question but we like to see how stable the market turns out to be before we make any decision,” Lori said in conclusion.

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