May 2019

China’s ban and the strong import controls of several South East Asian countries on plastic scrap continue to have an adverse effect on US markets. Exports have greatly reduced and lower-grade plastics continue to struggle to find a market.

There are still opportunities in South East Asia - in particular Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia - with strong demand shown for high-grade HDPE and LDPE. However, this is on a case-by-case basis and not necessarily a transparent transaction. Central & South America as well as some European countries continue to be an option for American material but without any consistency or in any great volume.

The domestic markets are much healthier and more robust, especially for HDPE and PET. Both these resins are enjoying strong demand driven by large US converters. PET is much in the news as the prospect of mandated recycled content appears imminent in California, a state that is often the industry leader. The prospect of a mandate has triggered a surge in PET interest, with several virgin resin manufacturers buying reclaimer companies to meet the needs of their customers who may be required to use a percentage of rPET in their packaging. As a result, the rPET market is healthy and has stabilised, standing independently from the virgin market.

The HDPE market is seeing vigorous demand, with US converters consuming most of the material generated. The LDPE market is conditional on quality. Clean stretch film is popular and grocery bags are only sought if clean. Lack of contamination is the driving factor for sales; markets for lower-quality LDPE have disappeared. In the USA, polypropylene is a surging commodity with strong demand both for domestic and export. It has developed its own standard grade separate from mixed bales. It continues to see strong growth with high demand from domestic converters.

The same cannot be said for PVC and PS. There is limited demand for PVC; post-industrial blister pack is a very small exception but, as a whole, the material is low in volume and so fails to generate much interest and therefore no market. EPS food service is an unpopular package that is failing to thrive. However, in some regions there are stable markets for cleaned and separated rigid and foam PS.

After two years of National Sword, many US cities have failed to develop ways to deal with the new reality. Municipalities without updated infrastructures have suffered the worst and have failed to divert much of the lower-grade plastics. Only high-grade separated HDPE, PET, PP, PE film and bulky rigids have widespread outlets.

However, the current conditions have spurred new initiatives. There is growing interest in chemical recycling, including some pilot programmes that are testing its economic viability. Likewise, the waste-to-energy sector has advanced, with some utility companies investing in the technology. However, it is meeting some resistance from environmental groups concerned by the pollution and, more importantly, by the loss of the recycled material. On a positive note, the USA is seeing broader investment in facilities to separate mixed plastics 3-7, partly because of the growing interest in PCR content and also the recognition that greater separation leads to higher value.

Sally Houghton - Sally Houghton (United States)

Sally Houghton

The Plastic Recycling Corporation of California (USA), Board Member of the BIR Plastics Committee

United States
May 2019