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7/29/2016 | 2 MINUTE READ

Pondering the Future of Recycling

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The business will persevere, but it might look a bit different than it does now.

I’ve been in plastics journalism long enough to remember when some viewed recycling as a passing fad—the flavor of the month until some other new technology or game-changing development grabbed the headlines. I don’t hear anyone doubting the future of recycling today; that would be just silly at a time when environmental concerns are probably at their all-time peak.

Recycling will be a part of the plastics industry because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also something that consumers, retailers, brand owners, and OEMs are demanding.

I’ve been brooding about recycling lately—not about whether that business will persevere, but in what form. Because as important as recycling is to the entire supply chain, my sense is that the recycling industry in 5-10 years is going to look a lot different than it does now.

Here’s what’s been on my mind:

  1.  Recycled resin prices need to be decoupled from prime resin prices. There are so many moving pieces in the recycling chain and so many layers of cost involved that recyclers get badly dinged when prime resin prices dip. How can this continue? It can’t. But as committed as the full supply chain says it is to the cause, it remains to be seen whether or not consumers will be willing to pay a few cents more for a product containing recycled material. I’m sure if a survey were taken, consumers would say yes. But that doesn’t mean much to me.

 2.  Recyclers themselves will become more sophisticated. I get the sense that machine builders are starting to feel this way already. Starting at K 2013 and continuing to NPE 2015, I started to notice new technologies that combine recycling and compounding in a single step. The point is that recycling companies will be looking to add value by bringing compounding capabilities in-house.

 3.  Bigger companies will get involved. Some resin companies, Sabic being one, already offer grades of engineering resins containing post-consumer reclaim as part of their product portfolio. It’s not unrealistic to expect more prime resin companies to do the same, perhaps by acquisition.

 4.  Room for the small player? Lots of times when bigger companies get involved in a business, the small guy is squeezed out. But bigger companies generally don’t like to specialize or customize. So they could team with recyclers/compounders that have a particular specialty—in color, for example—to bring materials to the market.

 5.  The role of retailers. Should the role of the big-box outfits end with proclamations of how much recycled content a package must have before they make room for it on their shelves?  Given their size and scope, might they consider getting involved in collection programs by encouraging—or incentivizing—their customers to return to them products that are not part of a typical curbside program?

Those are my random thoughts. What are yours?