Few sectors have grown both as steadily and as rapidly in the post-World War II era in the United States as the plastics industry. As America’s household consumers became the engine of the world’s largest economy, the plastics industry developed a polymer for seemingly every purpose.
Recyclers of postconsumer packaging, automobiles and electronic scrap all have worked to develop end markets for some of the materials that otherwise would be thrown out or incinerated.
Demolition contractors and mixed C&D recyclers, by percentage of the volumes they handle, may deal with less plastic than these other sectors, but they nonetheless have found themselves encountering opportunities—and facing challenges—related to recycling plastic scrap.
IN THE MIX
Both construction and demolition contractors have seen an upward trend in the amount of plastic they encounter, whether it is in the form of plumbing pipes, plastic drywall and paint buckets, composite decking and building materials, vinyl siding or plastic films used to package and ship other building materials.
These same types of plastic show up in the commingled loads brought to mixed C&D facilities, where plant operators make decisions about which types of plastics represent an opportunity and which ones are simply too costly to try to recycle.
The “triage” process can involve a combination of visual inspection, manual picking and automated sorting and, perhaps most critically, an understanding of the current viability of end markets that can change rapidly.
Ray Kvedaras, the general manager of Cooper Tank Recycling, Brooklyn, New York, points to plastic films as a market that involved persistent effort to cultivate. “Film plastic has not been worthwhile [recently] in terms of dollars and cents, but it took us years to establish a market and I don’t want to give it up.”
Kvedaras says since Cooper Tank has created a process to prepare and ship a plastic film grade, the patience to stick with it will pay off. “We are getting paid market price, so when it goes up we’ll reap the benefits,” he says.
How much of any given type of plastic arrives at a C&D recycling plant can vary greatly depending on a company’s customer base or location.
Regarding film grades, Charles Gusmano, of the Davie, Florida-based Southern Waste Systems (SWS) subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., says, “We do not get enough volume of the film to pick it.”
Todd Byrum, a sustainability consultant with Butler Paper Recycling, Suffolk, Virginia, buys plastic scrap from C&D recyclers throughout the Eastern United States. He says rural and outer ring suburban areas can yield a desirable film grade. “There is a seasonal market for greenhouse film that is consistent and viable. Ag films overall will move, if not always at a great price.”
While mixed C&D plants in other parts of the country may face an ongoing decision as to what to do with vinyl siding, Gusmano notes, “There is no real volume of vinyl siding in southeast Florida, so we don’t see much of it.”
Byrum says he has worked in close cooperation with scrap vinyl siding processor Shermans Valley Recycling, Loysville, Pennsylvania, to try to nurture the end market for this often problematic material.
Byrum says Shermans Valley is currently making upgrades to its processing equipment and is not aggressively buying material, but ideally the plant will be “back up and running in a couple of months,” sometime during fall 2016.
Mixed rigid plastic scrap is common enough that it can be prepared as different grades and has a pricing structure connected to the wider plastic scrap market—a market that has not been especially bright in 2016.
The ups and downs of the mixed rigid scrap grade in recent years points to the wider difficulties in the global and national plastic scrap market.
The value of a mix of plastic resins, as measured by an index created by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics with 100 representing a 1980 baseline figure, has fallen from the 300 to 307 range in 2014 to the 255 to 260 range in the first half of 2016. That represents a drop of about 16 percent in value.
That overall trend toward lower pricing is noticed by mixed C&D recyclers who must decide on which materials to concentrate their efforts.
In South Gate, California, Richard Ludt of Interior Removal Specialist Inc. (IRS), says some mixed rigid plastics do make it into their facility, but they have not yet found a “financially viable outlet that makes sorting the material worthwhile.”
He says low pricing is creating similar circumstances for plastic films at the IRS facility in South Gate. “At this time [we] are not sorting film plastics or tarps for the same reason we are not dealing with rigid plastics,” he says.
If plastic pricing is not high enough to inspire new sorting efforts in 2016, it also is not low enough to deter those with a sorting and shipping system in place. Kvedaras remarks that in the Northeast avoiding disposal costs provides an incentive to recycle the plastic.
Drywall buckets, says Kvedaras, are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) “and are easily picked out of the C&D waste stream.” He adds, “There is a good domestic market for this material,” citing KW Plastic in Troy, Alabama.
“The mixed rigid plastic [grade is] primarily an export item because of the cost of separating the grades,” says Kvedaras. “Of course the value is down, but the cost of disposal is creeping up.”
Bynum also says mixed rigids “tend to be an export grade,” but there is a domestic market for “A grade” cleaner material that can fetch a higher price.
He says he recently paid four cents per pound for mixed rigids picked up from a recycling plant in New Jersey. “I can pay people nine cents for a domestic buyer, but recyclers who want to sell to the export market can pick pretty much any bulky rigid off the line,” says Bynum, noting this is much less labor intensive.
In the South, Gusmano says SWS has end markets, but there is no denying that the revenue earned from selling the material has declined.
Avoiding the landfill may provide an incentive for more plastic recycling to take place within the C&D sector not only to avert the cost of disposal, but also to meet corporate or government waste diversion goals.
The waste diversion section of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) scorecard asks green building adherents to consider the merits of reusing or recycling the scrap materials generated during a building project.
The popularity of LEED in the corporate community has doubtlessly helped bring additional material into mixed C&D plants and likewise prompted plant operators to produce as little landfill-bound residue as possible at their facilities.
The green building and wider corporate sustainability movements have encouraged manufacturers of a number of building products to take steps to create a recycling loop.
However, these incentives on their own do not seem to have been enough to provide help to some of the most stubborn holdout materials.
The commercial carpet industry has tried numerous measures to increase the recycling rate of end-of-life carpet and padding, the majority of which is made of nylon, polyester or other polymers.
The journey has not been easy, however, with some efforts stalling because of issues tied to freight or a lack of material uniformity. (See the sidebar “At ground level.”)
The lack of material uniformity is the overriding reason for the minimal rate of plastic PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plumbing piping that takes place.
“Nothing has really changed with PVC,” says Gusmano of a market where each pipe manufacturer has its own proprietary blend of materials, and thus does not welcome a secondary resin produced from commingled scrap materials.
“I’m hearing that it’s pretty much dead,” Bynum says of recycling efforts in the sector. He says one recycler he works with had been sorting and grinding PVC pipe scrap, “but virgin [resin] has gotten so cheap the piping manufacturers have zero incentive to use recycled material.”
He continues, “I don’t know anybody who’s buying it. Why would manufacturers of new pipe take the contamination risk. The integrity of the resin can’t be questioned when its virgin. The only [secondary PVC resin] being used is post-industrial from the same manufacturer.”
In the construction sector (and ultimately in demolition material steams), plastic appears poised to retain and grow its market share.
However, C&D recyclers will continue to have their work cut out for them as they continue to keep an eye on pricing and diversion goals to determine which types of plastic to sort, process and ship.