Plastic recycling is in the same situation with one added caveat: We haven’t figured out how to technically clean and reuse plastic by-product. The article in Resource Recycling by Nina Butler and Emily Tipaldo, “Unlocking the Plastic Paradox,” is worth reading. They start with the petrochemical industry and point out that the waste issue will grow, because we’re going to be making more and more plastic without proper technology to deal with the by-product. “A solution to plastic waste is desperately needed immediately.”
The article touches on a variety of aspects, including demand, down-gauging, and the ultimate cost paradigm. Essentially, I came away with a bit of a different conclusion: My take is that the plastics paradox is less about the relationship between the petrochemical industry and resin markets, but, rather, more about the fact that the technology has done so much good but has also created a gigantic problem: mountains of by-product. Butler and Tipaldo surmise that more plastics mean lighter shipments, which means reduced fuel consumption, e.g., less gasoline and/or diesel fuel. They’re right, of course, but what’s wrong with that? Nothing, in my opinion! Their article refers to the State of Texas “flaring off” – $1 million a day of natural gas generated in gas production. I had no idea the amount was so great and only wonder why Texas doesn’t have costly penalties for this practice. First, the gas could be used to make additional virgin resin. Second, there are obviously environmental issues with unbridled emissions into the atmosphere. (I can remember the same phenomenon in northern New Jersey back in the 50s and 60s. This was an absolutely staggering environmental disaster that was finally corrected in the late 1980s, early 1990s). The article concludes with a conundrum originally identified by my mentor, Lester Brown: understanding the true or “real” costs of plastics:
- Externalized costs are those paid by society and the environment rather than the producer. A failure to incorporate the true cost of production into the products we consume leads to market malfunction. Because we fail to place value on scrap commodities for their environmental attributes and externalize the cost of production of virgin materials, recyclers struggle to compete with virgin resin producers.
- We are in the midst of a massive transition on so many levels. The opportunity for the petrochemical industry to unlock the plastic paradox is ripe. Industry has the capital, research and development capabilities, and business acumen to unlock many of the necessary solutions.
Have you figures it out yet? What Evian spelled backward means?
In December of 2018, Saabica Chaudhuri wrote an excellent article in the WSJ. “Bottled Water, America’s Most Popular Drink Has a Plastic Problem.” While Butler and Tipaldo talked about plastics in general, Chaudhuri focused on polyethylene terephthalate, or as commonly known, PET. PET is a thermoplastic resin of the polyester family, and is used in fibers for clothing, containers for liquids and foods, etc. When we talk about textile applications, we normally refer to the fiber as polyester. But, when we refer to packaging applications, like plastic bottles, we use the acronym, PET. If you look up polyester/PET you can read about the chemistry and possibility of recycling. The problem with PET recycling has been the difficulty to return the resin to a clean, clear stage that can be thermoformed into a bottle that isn’t cloudy or with dark/black marks. Start thinking about it: Do you want to drink water from a hazy, cloudy plastic container?
Wouldn’t you wonder about the origin of the water?
At any rate, the WSJ article is a great summary of commitment, failure, and issues that the bottled water industry is facing: the inability to create viable recovery and reprocessing technology for PET bottles. I honestly believe the collection part is pretty simple. For example, we have recyclers ready to collect, process and package plastic by-product. However, they have no markets and the industry is scrambling to survive. We also have bottle laws in a number of states, Michigan and Iowa here in the Midwest. You’re charged a “recycling tax,” which is redeemable when the container is brought back to a redemption center. The redemption is inclusive and is applicable for PET, glass and aluminum. I know someone in Michigan who recently told me he buys water bottles from Amazon and then takes them to his redemption center for a cash rebate. Pretty clever.
Chaudhuri does introduce a new process that turns a variety of waste plastics into a clean, high quality material:
- A Montreal-based startup, Loop Industries Inc., had developed a process to break plastic into its base ingredients. The process didn’t use heat or pressure, so contaminants didn’t melt into the plastic and could be filtered out. Daniel Solomita, Loop’s CEO, likened it to assembling a chocolate cake into its ingredients – sugar, flour, chocolate, eggs and butter – to make a brand new cake.
- He said other technologies, in contrast to Loop’s, are limited because they can process far fewer materials into new, bottle-quality plastic. “They’re all fighting for that clean, clear plastic bottle because that’s the only type of feedstock they can use,” he said. “We don’t have supply constraints.”
My initial research on Loop Industries indicates its primary raw material (feedstock) is PET, not a variety of resins that include PVC. Granted, we manufacture billions of pounds of PET per year, but still this resin alone is no more than 20-30% of the 650 billion pounds of plastics being generated globally.
Have you figured it out? What Evian spelled backward means? Look, let’s not be naïve! First, we need markets for recycled plastics. Second, we need to develop the technology to remove contamination and allow an “R” resin to be used in a variety of consumer goods applications. Maybe Loop Industries has part of the answer. Third, we need an integrated approach with the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for the use of R-resin in food packaging applications. For example, Dannon, who owns Evian, also uses large volumes of resin in its own packaging for food applications. We need to use high percentages of recycled resin in those containers. We have only to look at the infrastructure in the paper and paperboard industries to know that building “recycled” into paper packaging is possible.
There are now collectors and reusers. The brandowner has developed box specifications that require a high percentage of recycled fiber. The US Government now requires that any paper they purchase must have at least 35% secondary fiber. The markets are there and the technology and infrastructure is now mature, meeting those requirements.
We need to do exactly the same in the plastics industry. Perhaps, just perhaps, Marshall Medoff, the founder of Xyleco, can help with the transformation. Medoff is an 81-year-old inventor who became obsessed with finding a solution for global warming. He is not a chemical engineer and didn’t go to MIT or Stanford. Instead he meditated at Waldon Pond and eventually, after 15 years of research, figured out how to extract friendly sugar molecules from plant life to make sugar that doesn’t rot teeth, plastics that decompose in 12 days and biofuel that can be delivered and used the same way as gasoline without any harm to the environment.
I heard about this on 60 Minutes and if you think it’s too good to be true, listen to the interview on: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/marshall-medoff-the-unlikely-eccentric-inventor-turning-inedible-plant-life-into-fuel-60-minutes-2019-06-23/ (After watching 60 Minutes several times, I have decided that Medoff is either a mad scientist or Bernie Madoff’s half brother).
Medoff’s obsession with trying to stop global warming utilizes a very common feedstock, cellulose. It is abundant all over the world unless you’re in parts of Africa or Asia-Pacific where they have cut down all the trees for fuel. His process, which is now commercially available from one plant on the West Coast, uses electronic extraction, electron beam, to break the biomass apart and release the sugar, which can be converted into edible sugar, biofuel and plastic. This is the kind of breakthrough the plastics industry needs to solve their by-product problem.
Essentially the Xyleco scheme eliminates non-recyclable by-product entirely. If it’s “for real” you can drink all the Evian you want and not have to worry about what it spells backwards.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is