E-plastics study shines light on a growing segment of recycling—its makeup, collection rates, and end-uses.

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Experts from four leading plastics recycling trade associations tackled questions on vital topics such as the evolving waste stream, dynamic resin markets, and the current business environment.

Computer mice (above) and other peripherals (below) provide over 90% plastic yield according to an in-depth research study on the plastics recovered from scrap electronics. Keyboards provide the second-highest yield (80-90% plastic), followed by printers at 45%.

Marking its 10th year, the 2015 Plastics Recycling Conference (PRC), sponsored by Resource Recycling magazine, brought over 1500 attendees from 40 countries and 200 exhibitors to this year’s Dallas venue in February. Complementing the PRC conference on the first day was the second Recycling Techology Summit of the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI)—which included a progress report on recycling thermoforms by the EcoStar facility of sheet extruder and thermoformer Placon, discussing engineering advances that resolve key technical issues challenging the industry.

Placon CEO Dan Mohs highlighted two examples. Thermoforms generally have larger surface areas covered by labels compared with bottles, which presents a challenge for optical sorters. Different adhesives can also require greater chemical usage and higher temperatures in the washing stage. But when one combines 15% thermoform scrap together with other post-consumer containers, the abrasion as they are churning helps remove the labels. That enables the company to reduce caustic chemicals in the wash, said Mohs. He also noted that PET thermoform flake is more brittle than flake from PET bottles, but by using only 15% thermoforms in the bottle-reclamation process, the strength loss is negligible, eliminating need for addition of virgin PET to the mix.

ADDRESSING KEY ISSUES
Top brass from four leading plastics recycling trade associations led an interesting session of the PRC. Steve Russell, v.p. of the Plastics Div. of the American Chemical Council (ACC), noted that the trade organizations and leading companies in various recycling sectors have started to work together more than ever before.

Steve Alexander, manager of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) noted that packaging producers and recycling observers attach unreasonably short time frames to their demands for innovation from reclaimers and other recycling players. He said solutions for new materials such as flexible film pouches will come about as markets progress naturally. Supporting that notion was Kim Holmes, SPI’s director of recycling, who noted that if the industry can find ways to collect more robust data about specific resins that will be in demand, firms can feel more comfortable about putting major financial commitments behind the R&D needed to tackle challenging recycle streams.

Meanwhile, the ACC’s Plastics Div. released its report, Making Sense of the Mix: Analysis and Implications for the Changing Curbside Recycling Stream. Two developments that have emerged in the past 15 years—single-stream collection of recyclable materials and the attendant switch from smaller-capacity bins to larger rollcarts—have led to an increased variety of recyclable materials, particularly plastics, in the recycling stream. Some developments, like the addition of mixed non-bottle rigid plastics to collection programs, have increased reclamation capacity.

APR’s Alexander noted that the focus in the last few years has been to expand on keeping recycled plastic here in the U.S. instead of exporting it. “We have made key
strides in PP recycling,” he noted. ACC’s Russell cited a 74% increase in film and bag recycling and improved recovery rates of over 1 billion lb in non-bottle rigid plastics in just the last few years.

Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), applauded how investment in identifying and sorting technology has been key in getting rid of some of the “bad players” in this business.

Design guidelines, e.g., a full-wrap sock label that is totally recyclable; and harmonization of design and specifications are keys to advancing the industry, said SPI’s Holmes. “We’re seeing reshoring of manufacturing to the U.S. and Chinese companies moving here to start recycling businesses.”

E-PLASTICS NICHE IS GROWING
A first look at in-depth research on plastics recovered from scrap electronics was the aim of “All About E-Plastics,” presented by Dylan de Thomas, editorial director at Resource Recycling, Inc. The work was sponsored by ACC’s Plastics Div., which will release the final report in May. De Thomas noted that one next step is to submit aggregated data to EPA to facilitate better accounting of plastics recovery from e-scrap.

An e-plastics overview shows they comprise ABS, HIPS, PC/ABS, PC, PPO alloys, and PS. About 52% are non-flame-retardant while about 48% are FR, though the latter is thought to be much lower today. Many bromine-based flame retardants have been phased out by environmental regulations, so recyclability ought not to be adversely affected as it was a decade ago.

E-plastics sources and estimated yields are computer mice & other peripherals, over
90% plastic; keyboards, 80-90%; printers, 45%; flat-panel computer monitors, 38%;
flat-panel TVs, 28%; laptop PCs, 26%; CRT computer monitors, 18%; CRT TVs, 12%; and desktop PCs, 3%. Total recovery rate was 6.7% in 2012.

De Thomas then described the survey, which comprises a database of approximately 1600 e-scrap processors, including those dismantling scrap electronics and packaging/baling/shredding the material to sell in the open market; reverse-logistics firms; and large-scale refurbishers. They include e-scrap processors, buyers, and brokers; OEMs; and e-plastics processors/reclaimers.

Preliminary results show all respondents reporting negligible landfilling of the material. In addition: baled material volume is shrinking; most of the material is shredded scrap. Average throughput per processor was 1.47 tons of e-plastics sent for recycling in 2013. Recovered material is sold to both brokers and end-users, both domestic and foreign. And the majority of processors use automated sortation techniques.

The survey shows that the vast majority of recovered e-plastics is exported, but “quite a lot of the material is staying domestic.” It is low-value, with ample feedstock available, and an opportunity for niche reclaimers.

End-uses for recovered e-plastics include automotive bumpers and dashboards, construction materials such as tile and railroad ties, and consumer electronics and appliances such as PCs, monitors, and vacuum cleaners (users include Dell, HP, and Electrolux). Moreover, de Thomas presented data showing that post-consumer-recycle (PCR) content of ABS, ABS/PET, and ABS/PC used by OEMs in new desktops, notebooks, and displays grew by 30% between 2006 and 2011, and 150% from 2012 to 2014.

FROM CARPETS TO AUTO PARTS
“Opportunities in Carpet Recycling,” presented by Mark Linehart, director of operations at Wellman Engineering Resins, explained how post-consumer carpet is collected, processed, and marketed as a finished product. Now going global, the company was recently acquired by Shanghai Pret Composites, Ltd., a Chinese automotive plastics compounder.

Wellman’s Ecolon 100% PCR line of compounds started with nylon 6 and 66 grades, followed by Ecolene PP and recently by new Ecoloy nylon/PP alloy compounds, available with either nylon 6 or 66. They reportedly offer lighter weight, improved NVH (PP is “deader” than nylon), lower cost than nylon, and HDT equivalent to nylon. All are offered unfilled, impact-modified, and glass- or mineral/glass-reinforced, as well as paintable grades. UV/weatherable grades are now in development.

Wellman’s first market breakthrough in 1997, and still its largest application, is auto air-cooling modules—fans and shrouds, followed by valve covers and oil separators. PCR-based cam covers have been commercial since 2005. Air-intake manifolds, air-cleaner components, oil caps, and engine covers are other growing applications.