New Facility: Could This Be the Future of Plastics Recycling?

Professor Plastic

Professor Plastic

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Man drawing a recycle symbol

You know I’m a big fan of plastics recycling. So I like to take the opportunity every year to celebrate America Recycles Day on November 15. This year, I’m really excited about a new initiative that may well be a harbinger of things to come in plastics recycling.

A very large plastics recycling facility is slated to open in Baltimore, MD. It sports cutting edge technology that has been proven elsewhere on a smaller scale. It will recycle types of plastics that are not widely recycled today. And it’s not just for Baltimore—it’s designed to collect plastics within a 500-mile radius across the East Coast and process approximately 4,500 tons of materials each month, more than double what is currently possible in the U.S., according to its backers.

That sounds… absolutely fantastic.

What’s also really cool is who is backing the facility: a large source of funding designed to jumpstart recycling across the nation. The $100 million Closed Loop Fund, founded by ten of the largest consumer products companies (P&G, Walmart, Coca-Cola, etc.) provides zero and low interest loans to cities and companies that want to build new recycling facilities and projects for plastics and other materials.

By 2025, the Fund aims to divert more than 20 million tons of waste from landfills, eliminate more than 50 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and create more than 20,000 jobs. Its goal is to make sure that every U.S. household has access to a convenient and robust curbside recycling program.

The plastics recycling facility in Baltimore is the Fund’s first project. The facility will have the capacity to divert 650,000+ tons of plastics from landfills, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 670,000 tons, which is equal to removing 136,000 cars from the road over the next ten years.

The facility’s approach to recycling may well be able to significantly jumpstart plastics recycling rates, predominately by reprocessing large amounts of plastics that are not now readily recycled. While PET and HDPE bottles and containers—those with the numbers 1 and 2 in chasing arrows—are accepted in most recycling programs and have robust markets, other plastics are not collected as widely and may not have similarly strong markets.

The Baltimore facility uses technologies that can make it more economical for cities to sell these plastics in the market, which could considerably increase the amount of plastics recycled. What technologies? Primarily advanced, high-tech optical sorting. Instead of sorting large quantities of plastics by hand, optical sorters are able to “read” different types of plastics, and then send puffs of air to blow specific items into the correct stream. These streams of plastics that have been separated according to type can be much more valuable than streams of mixed plastics.

To be sure, optical sorting is not brand new—there are many types of sorters that already are being used at other recycling facilities. But the Baltimore facility also takes recycling a step further by processing separated plastics back into the raw material form of plastics—pellets—that are sold to companies that make plastic packaging and products. As the word suggests, plastic pellets are about the size and shape of dry lentils. Processing plastics back into pellets can further enhance the economics of the facility.

The combination of funding source, advanced technologies, and pellet processing are designed to make broader plastics recycling more economical. According to the Closed Loop Fund, facilities like this could be replicated across the nation – and beyond.

Sounds quite promising. We might just be observing the future of plastics recycling.

To celebrate plastics recycling this America Recycles Day, go to the Second Chances page to learn more about widening opportunities to recycle plastics, as well as enter for a chance to win a 16GB iPad Air® (no purchase necessary) preloaded with applications, tips, and information about plastics and recycling.