Plastic Money

Scott Farling, vice president, business development and research at Titus MRF Services, shows plastic waste that is being recycled at the Pacific Northwest Secondary Sorting Demonstration project in Southeast Portland

A Portland plastics recycling project aims to solve the growing trash problem.

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When China banned imports of recyclable plastics from the U.S. in January 2018, America’s lack of infrastructure to deal with its own trash was laid bare. Local governments scaled back on what consumers could put in their recycling bins. More trash has made its way to landfills.

For a long time, the U.S. neglected to invest in effective plastic recycling facilities because it was able to ship its waste to developing countries. That strategy is no longer viable. “The inadequacies and inefficiencies in our system were not visible because China took [the waste],” says Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability at the Plastics Industry Association.

This lack of investment is slowly changing. In Portland, Metro has partnered with several private funders to work on a solution. It has launched a project aimed at improving plastics recycling locally.

RELATED STORY: Oregon Struggles With Recyclable Waste; Businesses See Opportunities

The 60-day demonstration project in Southeast Portland sorts plastics that would normally go to the landfill. These plastics can then be sold to companies that recycle plastics into valuable products, such as synthetic oils and chemicals.

The Pacific Northwest Secondary Sorting Demonstration Project is managed by the Washington, D.C.-based trade group Plastics Industry Association and is funded by a group of private organizations, including Berry Global, a maker of plastic packaging; LyondellBasell, a plastics recycling company; and AmSty, a producer of polystyrene.

The project uses waste-sorting technology patented by recycling company Titus MRF Services. Waste plastic comes to the facility from four regional material recovery facilities (MRFs). Machines use technology that can distinguish and sort the different resins in the plastic trash, including PET, commonly found in plastic bottles; polystyrene; high-density polyethylene, often used in milk jugs; and plastic food cartons.

Trash 2Plastic waste that was destined for the landfill will be recycled at the new demonstration project 

Material recovery services typically lack the infrastructure to sort through a lot of plastic trash. Part of the reason is that a lot of plastic products commonly found in food packaging, such as yogurt containers, are made of several plastic types, such as polystyrene or polypropylene. It can be hard to distinguish with the naked eye what resins are contained in the plastics.

Globally, only a small portion of plastics — 9% — are recycled.

RELATED STORY: One Country’s Trash is Another Country’s…Well, Trash

Several domestic plastics recycling companies have formed or are expanding to meet demand for materials derived from plastic waste. These include New Jersey-based plastic scrap recycler GDB International; PureCycle Technologies, a startup that purifies plastic resin known as polypropylene; Indiana-based East-Terra Plastics, a waste-processing company; and Tigard-based Agilyx, which extracts high-value oils and chemicals from the plastic waste.

Demand for recycled plastic is increasingly driven by owners of brands that aim to increase the amount of post-consumer recycled plastic they use in their products. Sportswear maker adidas has started to make shoes from recycled plastic. Unilever has a goal of making 100% of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

One particular plastic resin, polypropylene, is in such high demand domestically that a U.S. company has imported it from Europe, says Holmes.

Trash 1Scott Farling of Titus MRF Services shows plastic waste that will be recycled at the Southeast Portland facility  

If the demonstration project is a success, Titus MRF Services plans to build a sorting and recycling facility, or secondary MRF, in the region. A facility of this kind costs $15 million to build, which is similar to what it would cost to retrofit existing material recovery facilities to make them more effective at sorting.

Business solutions to the plastics problem will continue to emerge as the U.S. is increasingly forced to deal with its own trash. Like China, other Asian countries that accepted recyclable plastics are starting to push back. As trash piles up, public-private partnerships, such as the demonstration project in Southeast Portland, will become more necessary.

For its part, Metro appears ahead of the curve on keeping on top of the trash problem.

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