As anyone who has attended a recycling conference or followed the industry in the past year knows, the plummeting prices of recycled commodities have been front and center. More recently, a series of articles in the Washington Post questioned the health of the US recycling system and pointed at single stream recycling as the source of rising contamination at material recovery facilities (MRFs) and more specifically in the commodities that they produce. However, as the barrage of rebuttal articles pointed out, the current challenge being faced by MRFs is far more complicated.
Nonetheless, the contamination being experienced by MRFs is very real. The combination of the evolving recycling stream, weak consumer recycling habits, higher community collection volumes of recyclables and non-recyclables (aka contamination) in carts, and in some cases, poor MRF sorting practices, has caused the residue level at the typical MRF to rise to an average of 16 percent over the past eight years (B Moore and GBB Consultants).
The question is, what strategy can be used to address it? There are campaigns urging “Recycle Right” trying to get people to put the correct things in the bin. Given the diversity of materials in today’s packaging, it is more important than ever to ensure that packaging is not only recyclable but also contributes value to the recovery supply chain. Designing for bale value is a strategy to ensure that packaging collected for recycling provides value to a recycled commodity.
Design for recyclability is one of the many design for the environment terms used in the lexicon of industrial ecology. It refers to methods that encourage the recovery of materials and the use of best practices in product design to optimize recycled value. The idea is to design products that are fit for use in recovery systems to conserve and extend their material value.
Design for recyclability is interpreted and practiced differently depending on the product and the material recovery system because not all recovery systems are the same. For instance, the systems for recovering curbside-collected packaging are different than recovering electronics through systems like retail take-back. These are important differences when it comes to designing a product for recyclability.
Moreover, the differences in recovery systems and the ambiguity in what is meant by the term “recycling” makes it difficult at times to understand exactly what it means for something to be recyclable. Is avoiding landfill the goal? Does it need to get in the collection cart and sorted at a MRF? Or does it actually have to be made into another product?
Myriad design guidance has been written over the years, but rarely does that guidance look into the specifics of individual recovery systems, nor does it break it down and provide feedback to designers about the technical details of the system — something that would truly reflect the “systems thinking” needed to ensure that products are designed to be successfully recovered.
In trying to ensure that recyclability claims are not misleading, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does offer guidance and a definition for recyclability. However, the FTC, being focused on how the consumer interprets claims, fails to delve into the specifics of recovery systems. And granted, it is hard. The FTC Green Guides generically suggest that products and packaging may not be marketed as recyclable unless they can be collected, separated or otherwise removed from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item. The Guides go on to link recyclability claims to a threshold percentage of consumer access to community collection programs. They also offer guidance if any component significantly limits the ability to recover an item. The FTC guidance focuses on recyclability in terms of an individual product or package but lacks consideration of how that product affects the recycling system. Specifically, they don’t address how packaging relates to what a MRF produces — a commodity bale — and the quality and consistency of that bale which impacts end markets.
Commodities are the “products” that MRFs create and that end markets like paper mills, plastics recyclers and aluminum remelters purchase. A few of the most common commodity bales include old corrugated cardboard (OCC), old newspaper (ONP), PET bottles (PET), HDPE (natural and colored), steel cans (steel or Fe Cans) and aluminum (UBCs). Bales have specifications, including thresholds for acceptable contaminant levels and prohibited materials. Though ultimately negotiated between buyer and seller, for most materials these specifications are established by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) enabling buyer and seller to have a common language. From the US fleet of over 500 MRFs, more than $2 billion per year of baled commodities are shipped to market. There are published prices for commodities, but a MRFs reputation for producing quality bales will determine the price that will be paid and their ability to move material. The design of a MRF, its equipment, the quality of the incoming recycle stream and how well it is operated and maintained all contribute to the quality of the bales that are produced.
However, the speed at which even a highly capitalized MRF can respond to material changes is far slower than innovations in packaging design. This disconnect has been evident throughout the 40-year history of recycling but never more so than today. The need to address this disconnect ties strongly to the economic health and sustainability of the recycling system and the ability to adapt and evolve along with new materials without adversely impacting other commodities or other aspects of the value chain. At this moment, for those interested in the recyclability of their packaging, there is growing common interest across the production and recovery chains to ensure bale value and greater insight into this aspect of recycling to help improve the design of packaging for recyclability and drive the needed improvement in recovery systems. It is a critical, but missing piece of understanding today.
Designing for bale value highlights the economic heart of the recovery system — the MRF and end markets and the commodities that connect them — that are key considerations when economically viable and authentic recyclability are goals. Designing for bale value evaluates whether packaging can be successfully sorted in a typical MRF and how it contributes to the commodity value and material quality of the target bale. It requires an understanding of how the materials, color and form of packaging interacts with the equipment of a MRF and the likelihood that packaging ends up in the right place without an unacceptable level of loss or contamination to other commodities. It also means looking at the likely end markets for a bale and the technologies used to reprocess it evaluating whether the bale is of a quality that meets economic expectations for yield and whether any of the packaging in that bale is likely to cause operational or material issues for end users of the bale and thus detract from the value of a bale.
A recent example of packaging that has impacted bale value has been the shift of a variety of rigid packaging into PET that is different from bottle grade PET, but is nevertheless sorted and included in the PET bale. Not all PET is equal. PET recyclers that used to buy a PET bale of bottles now buy a bale of beverage containers, clamshells, miscellaneous bottles and assorted PET packaging, all of which is slightly different and not all necessarily food grade. As a consequence, outside of bottle bill states where clean beverage container bales are still made, there has been a general decline in the quality and yield of the PET bale. By looking at design for bale value considerations, a designer gets insights as to whether he or she is designing in value or not. With better transparency, different decisions can be made.
Why is this important? The MRF and end markets are critical links in the value recovery system and determine what type and quality of materials are recovered, and in the long term, influence the economic health of the recycling system. How a package moves through and interacts with the MRF is not well understood by many, including packaging designers and developers. Through good material selection and package design, a package is successfully sorted and ends up in a preferred bale that is desired by end markets. Designing for bale value encourages developers to ask those deeper questions about recyclability that touch on the economics of recyclability, that of value and quality.
Design for bale value is considered at two levels: the bale and the package. At the bale level, designers must take into account the existence, strength and scale of the target commodity market and its prevalence across all MRFs. At the package level, designers must focus on a target commodity within MRFs and the value or burden the package brings to the commodity bale.
To maintain the economic sustainability and prepare our recycling systems for a future of evolving materials, design for recyclability needs to reflect all steps of the recovery value system. Bottom line: a package will not get recycled unless it provides value to end markets.
This is the “systems thinking” that underpins a truly circular economy that is built on an economic model of materials management. Designing packaging that successfully interacts with MRF systems and produces a valued commodity is fundamental to ensuring an economically sustainable recycling system and the goal of designing for bale value.
Anne Johnson is a principal and vice president at Resource Recycling Systems. She is an expert at applying life cycle thinking to materials management and enhancing products and process design. She has served as a strategic advisor for numerous companies, government panels and trade groups and is the former director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org