The Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) held its Spring Conference from April 30 – May 1 in King of Prussia, PA and offered two days of education, lively discussions, and great networking opportunities. Kicking off the first day of the event, Megan Schulz-Fontes, Executive Director of NERC talked about Earth Day’s focus this year on plastics and how the industry should use this attention from the public to educate and remind the public about the importance of reduction and reuse in addition to recycle, and showcase the amazing work that is being done on materials in addition to plastic. Recycling works best when we see reduction and reuse work together with it. The public is becoming increasingly wary of impacts on their environment and are changing their consumption behavior accordingly. She stressed that regardless of the upcoming results of the November’s election, we need to continue to focus the conversation on the RRR principles and the benefits of incorporating sustainable materials management into corporate strategy and state and municipal policy. Bringing the right people around the table is essential. Schulz-Fontes thanked everyone involved in making the event happen—the development and program manager, senior project manager, board members, committee members, advisory members, sponsors, and attendees. She announced the NERC Annual Fall Conference will be held on October 28-30 in partnership with the Center for Sustainable Materials Management at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, NY.

Day 1: Welcome Remarks and Keynote

Schulz-Fontes introduced Lawrence E. Holley, Director of Bureau of Waste Management for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, who provided the welcome remarks.

Holley thanked NERC for bringing the event back to Pennsylvania and said that the partnership is important. He talked about a study they did recently that showed organics made up most of waste stream, and that recycling processing and capacity is a challenge as collection methods are limited because of access and costs. He pointed out that while source separation has the best marketability, there is no one size fits all. Recycling education needs to be strong to complement your recycling program. He discussed how the future of recycling aligns with DEI, serving everyone while seeing the emergence of different cultures. He explained that at the Department, they have even begun to translate their resources into different languages. PA Dutch in particular is a combination of two languages, and because of this, there is a real need for these resources since there is limited access to internet and other materials. With regards to industry retention, she said that while we cannot compete with the private sector regarding pay, we need to think about how we can make employees feel valued. Holley emphasized the economic and environmental impact the industry has—everything associated with it has value. Don’t count on recycling as a true metric for your program, especially considering the changes taking place and the packaging/EPR programs being developed.

The keynote address was given by Rey Banatao, Director and Project Lead of X – The Moonshot Factory at Google. He spoke about leveraging data and AI to accelerate circularity. The industry is evolving at a rapid scale, especially with packaging, technology, and costs—commerce and packaging, moving to electrification, and using other materials. Recycling is the most searched sustainability action in the world every year, especially around the holidays, so there is a massive opportunity to engage with customers and consumers on this interest. There is a direct connection between recycling, resource management, and carbon budgets. If we double the global recycling rate, it has the potential to reduce >10 gigatons of carbon. The current worldwide recycling rate is 27 percent, and the target recycling rate is 62 to 82 percent. Google is investing in AI solutions for the circular economy, with a focus on 1) Education—anyone in world can get local recycling information. By combining user contributions and ML/AI tools, it could help create the world’s most comprehensive set of recycling drop off locations. 2) Recycling—Circular Net, a free open-source ML technology has been designed to detect recyclable plastics with pixel-level detection. It helps to identify, sort, and manage material. 3) AI Resource Innovation—the X – the Moonshot Factory aims to build innovations that can solve some of the world’s biggest challenges for as many people as possible over a long period of time. The people, processes, and cultures together can create breakthrough technologies. All of Google’s moonshots start with What If. Banatao explains that their vision is a sustainable future without waste, and their aim is to revolutionize resource recovery and decarbonize future materials starting with plastics. Advanced AI models unlock the latest material challenges for landfill bound plastics to radically improve recycling rates. Their ambition is to realize a world without waste by revolutionizing resource recovery and decarbonizing future materials.  Google is helping to organize and make it successful in a circular economy by working together to build dynamic solutions with investors, educators, industry professionals, etc.

Sustainable Materials Management

The first panel of the day focused on “How Sustainable Materials Management Fits Into the ‘E’ in ‘ESG’”. Moderated by Rey Banatao, Susan Robinson, Consultant for the Remanufactured Materials Association (REMA) – formerly ISRI – spoke first, pointing out that ESG was an acronym coined by the investor community to evaluate an organization’s sustainability performance. The fundamentals of ESG are accepted as simply ‘good hygiene’ for a company. Although ESG investing has taken a recent public relations hit, the tenets of Environmental, Social, and Governance reporting continue to solidify. E = Environment in ESG. The “E’ in ESG is how a company performs as a steward of the natural or physical environment, including air, water, and soil health. The environmental component of ESG is the organization’s use of natural resources and the effect of operations on the environment. Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) seeks to reduce use of materials, reduce environmental impacts, and protect resources. SMM and ESG work together to reduce impact. SMM is focused on the impact of materials and how to create programs and strategies to reduce overall impact along their supply chain, while ESG measures organizational impact via annual sustainable reporting. Public reporting drives action to reduce impacts. SMM is about considering the impacts of products and packaging throughout their lifecycle. ESG requires environmental goal setting. Materials management is part of ESG reporting if a company considers it to be a ‘material’ topic for their company, which they often do. SMM and ESG work together to contemplate the effect of materials on the environment, create programs and policies to affect change, and evaluate their impact. SMM and ESG are frameworks for impact, and they look at impacts of materials use and disposal. SMM drives reduced impact associated with materials. ESG measures impact by creating a GHG emission inventory at an annual organizational level. They work together to embrace change along the entire value chain of materials at organizations and companies.

Next, Brian Singer, Managing Director, Global Head of GS SUSTAIN, Global Investment Research, Goldman Sachs, talked about the links to fundamentals: translating sustainability metrics to the business. Evaluate what a company does – exposure, sustainable thematic, impact – and how they do it – culture, operational excellence, risk. There needs to be a significant amount of investment for net zero, infrastructure, water goals, and the need for $6tn/year of investment in the 2020s. This year, investments need to be made in battery storage, low emission fuels, electrification, energy efficiency, hydrogen infrastructure, electricity grids, EV chargers, etc. Is Green Capex on track? There is about $1.0 ton from the private sector of the $2.8 ton overall incremental need. He said that Goldman Sachs believes the private sector is on track for what is needed annually in 2020s. They see Green Capex space capacity from publicly traded companies of $0.7. Consumption efficiency and circularity key are for advancing decarbonization and adaption; however, some overlap must happen to be successful: reliability, education, re-training, biodiversity management, consumption efficiency/circular economy, and infrastructure. Circular solutions can help reduce global emissions by 39% from 2019 levels; focus on “inner loop” and the 10Rs of the circular economy – Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, Recycle, Recover. Over the past decade, energy efficiency gains have played a greater role in avoiding emissions than renewables.

Finally, Kaley Laleker, Sustainability and Circular Economy Policy and Advocacy Manager for Saint-Gobain North America, talked about the company’s strategies striving to be the worldwide leader in light and sustainable construction. They have updated their sustainability targets for 2030 compared to 2017, aiming to be net zero carbon by 2050, and with the goal to reduce by 80% non-recovered production waste and 30%+ virgin raw materials avoided. They are also performing a lifecycle analysis on 1,000+ of their products by 2030. She also covered Saint-Gobain’s reuse and recovery strategies for gypsum, insulation, asphalt shingles, and siding.

Safety in Material Recovery

“Safety in Material Recovery and Processing Workplaces”, moderated by Bradley Baker, Program Manager for Maryland MDE, featured George R. Thompson, President and CEO of Chemical Compliance Systems, Inc. and Ryan Fogelman, Partner, Fire Rover. Baker started the discussion by talking about “The Science of Chemical and Fire Safety for the Recycling Industry”. He explained there are three fire requirements – oxygen, ignition source, fuel, and recycling work focuses on the fuel. The hazards of common recycling fuels are ammonia, chlorine, glass, dusts, li-ion batteries, lead acid batteries, alkaline batteries, aerosol cans, propane tanks, and others. He stressed that it is important to understand the hazards so you can communicate what is involved in looking out for these materials. Chemical hazards from recycling material fires can be far worse than the actual fire, causing cancer and other problems. This includes ammonia, chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, aerosol cans, propane tanks, etc. A recycling facility fire is a chemical ‘stew’. Recycling facility fire safety priorities should be employees (PPE, training/education), community (establish formal cooperation agreements, PPE), environment (anticipate media coverage). Industry professionals need to understand the hazardous waste terms, how the elements mix, and what it can cause. Management needs to become educated and pass it down to employees and then educate communities.

Fogelman highlighted points from his 2023 fire report. Tracking fires since 2016, he said in the U.S. and Canada from February to April 2024, there were 373 unique incidents reported. Based on reasonable assumptions, we can extrapolate that 2,400 facility fires have occurred in the last two months. In 2018, there was a huge spike in lithium-ion batteries and the reality is that we have been dealing with batteries a lot longer than the public thinks. The li-ion batteries are what is causing most of the fires. Curbside recycling is only one piece of it. This year we had our first drop in four years. With increasing li-ion battery contaminations, we should see more facilities putting in the technologies to catch the beginnings of a fire event and therefore should lead to less incidents. The issue is not the number of fires, it is the severity of the fires. According to a Material Recycling World survey published in 2018, nearly 75% of respondents said fires caused a business to shut down for one day or more. Almost 80% of fire incidents in the UK burn for four hours or more. The direct costs are $1.2 billion per year from batteries. He also talked about firewater, which refers to water that has been used during firefighting operations. When too much firewater is used, it will require proper disposal. In many cases, it is highly polluted material that contains dissolved and particulate materials from combustion process and materials generated through quenching and materials present in the building and equipment. Water is fine for high rises and other buildings, but the way that we fight fires is completely different. A fire extinguisher does not put a li-ion battery out and there are safety issues with shrapnel. A comprehensive fire prevention program includes prevention, internal response, and professional response.

Sustainable Food Management

“Highlighting Actions for Sustainable Food Management” moderated by Melissa Pennington, Sustainability Coordinator for EPA Region 3, introduced Holden Cookson, Director of Business Development for Agri-Cycle Energy, Laxmi Wordham, Chief Growth Officer of Bright Feeds, and John Fay, Project Manager for NEWMOA. Cookson spoke about the financial incentives and impacts of diverting food waste from landfill to AD and higher uses. In 2021, there was 828 million hungry people and water, and land use was 25%. Agri-Cycle has hauled 300+ tons of food waste daily. The average cost of disposal by state is $90.71. For the Northeast, New York is lowest at $61.40, Rhode Island is highest at $115 per ton. Trucking and disposal (T&D) is important to understand because it references all in cost of collecting and disposing of the material. T is the hourly operation distance traveled, general operational efficiency/Lift. D is per ton disposal rate, AD cost incentive (material type, consistency, volume, weight, familiarity, and policies). Step one of calculating the ROI of implementing waste recycling is the total tonnage of organics to vendors (trash/rendering/oil tonnage, convert units of measurements as needed), total costs of vendors (the sum of all services), and divide the total cost by total tonnage (that number is your T&D). Step two – Calculate T&D of food waste recycling (provided in a quote/ proposal), Compare to T&D of all previous outlets (marry outlets together or compare them independently), Calculate % of organics to be diverted. Organics recycling T&D higher than trash?  Use the average annual increase in tip fees to determine when organics recycling is cheaper than trash. Additional savings could include reduction in pest control costs, human labor costs, reduction/donation support.

Wordham stressed that one-third of the world’s food is wasted costing $1 trillion USD per year. Converting unwanted food into animal food is an optimized solution. How do we grow the animal feed category? Bright Feeds takes in food waste and outputs animal feed. Worked with a lot of academic partners like WPI, Harvard Innovation Labs, and the Clinton Foundation. Bright Feeds is regulated at the local, state, and federal level. Food waste customers include large scale food manufacturers and feed customers (more than one dozen feed mill customers, including one of the largest feed producers in the country). They also have two patents pending: 1) process technology using AI and inline sensors to measure and mix nutrient value, and 2) drying technology for mixed food waste. Corn and soy replacement matching the nutrient value. Saves money for businesses and farmers and prevents carbon emissions. For every 1 ton of food waste processed, it prevents 1 ton of GHG.

Fay reviewed NEWMOA’s two-year project on expanding diversion of food waste to anaerobic digestion (AD) in the Northeast. Partners included NERC, Clean+Healthy NY, Connecticut Coalition for Economic and Environmental Justice. The goals of the project were to reduce food going to the landfill and increase understanding of AD for wasted food, build awareness about federal and state air, water, solid waste, and EJ regulations required to site AD, and develop EJ recommendations and considerations during the AD permitting process. Why anaerobic digestion? Commercial scale facilities can fit in smaller footprints for urban locations, it uses the current waste-collection model, so small behavior changes are required, and it captures methane and odors, as well as produces renewable energy from biogas. From the study, the following resources were developed: Documents – The Regulatory Guide (solutions to regulatory challenges and engage community support to expand diversion of food waste to AD in the NE), The Community Engagement Guide (how to approach your community if you are putting in a solid waste facility, ways to improve community engagement and time spent thinking about EJ),  and The Community Roadmap (for the communities themselves, what impact will a facility have on their community. They also held 4 webinars: 1) Anaerobic Digestion and Other Solutions for Wasted Food (regulations, logistics, costs, etc.), 2) Siting Consideration for Anaerobic Digestors, 3) Anaerobic Digestion Facilities: Operators’ Perspectives, and 4) EJ in Anaerobic Digestion: Green Solutions, Just Outcomes. Fay said that from the study, take-away #1 was that anaerobic digestion is one important part of the solution to waste food: provided overview of AD and its strengths, provided one-stop resources for siting in the NE, provided insight into the complicated nature of assessing environmental costs and benefits. Take-away #2 was that a community meeting is not enough. You need to listen, be honest, transparent, and have two-way communication; consider what would it look like if it was designed to go into your neighborhood?

The Impacts of Mining The final session of the first day focused on “The Impacts of Mining and Extraction Subsidies”. Moderated by Robin Ingenthron, CEO and President of Good Point Recycling, Aaron Mintzes, Senior Policy Counsel for Earthwork discussed “Loopholes and Subsidies for Extraction Waste: The Anti-Recycler’s Policy”. He pointed out that hydrocarbon subsidies include oil, gas, petrochem, and plastics.

  • Fossil fuels (and mining) subsidies Exlm Bank and International Development Finance Development Corporation
  • Tax Code: IRC Subchapter C of chapter 80
  • Section 43 enhanced oil recovery credit
  • Section 45I credit for producing oil and gas from marginal wells
  • Section 45q credit for carbon capture and sequestration
  • Section 461(i)(2) special rule for spudding oil and gas wells
  • Section 469(c)(3)(A) relating to work interests in oil and gas property
  • Section 613A percentage depletion allowance

Exemptions from environmental laws: oil, gas, metals wastes

  • RCRA C hazardous; Solid wastes from oil and gas exploration and production are categorically exempt
  • Clean Water Act exemptions

WOTUS – “waste treatment facilities’ for mine waste ‘fill’ material

The Result is EPA Toxic Release Inventory – metal mining annually releases more toxic waste to land and water than any other industry. What does this have to do with climate and environmental justice? Threatens biodiversity and freshwater supplies, metals reserves and resources are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations. We need to consider a circular economy policy for EV batteries – Battery Directive, EU Waste Directive. Biden/Harris rules on hydrocarbons and mining: The Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act improves tribal consultation, establishes stronger environmental standards, and creates royalties to pay for abandoned mine cleanup, while the End Polluter Welfare Act ends subsidies to fossil fuel and petro chemistries.

Josh Kelly, President of the NERC Board and Solid Waste Manager for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, wrapped up the first day by thanking the speakers and told the audience what to expect for the second day, including highlighting some of the keynotes and groups of speakers. He also recognized Mary Ann Remolador, NERC’s Assistant Director, who will be retiring in June. Remolador has been with NERC since 1995. Kelly praised her for being a collaborator and bringing people together for the last three decades. Remolador embedded DEI into NERC and paved the way for other organizations. She welcomed and ran committees, and produced materials for multiple states and communities that brought us all together as a region. Everyone has been touched by her work. She has delivered so many great conferences and she has been organizing these events for multiple years, and you can see that in the quality of today. Kelly then presented her with the Outstanding Contributions in Sustainable Materials Management Award to which she received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Day Two of NERC Conference Focuses on Supply Markets and Chemical Recycling

Opening Remarks and Keynote

Opening day two of the NERC conference was Michael Nork, Vice President of NERC, and Environmental Analyst for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. After highlighting the event sponsors, he went over the schedule for the day and introduced Kyle J. Lewis, Recycling Program Director for City of Philadelphia, who gave the opening remarks. She welcomed everyone to the city of Philadelphia, talked about things to see, and where to go. Being responsible for fundraising and education about recycling in Philadelphia, she talked about looking at many factors when crafting a program. Recycling items included hazardous material though collection centers and community events. The city has created and promoted two education campaigns: 1) Take a Minute Before You Bin it, When in Doubt Take it Out and 2) Recycle Right. She stressed that it is important to discuss recycling materials early, especially from the third to fifth grade education level. They advertised on the radio, buses, bus shelters, TV, and social media. They gave bins with a recycling guide, held quarterly morning meetings, and found that as COVID contamination has steadily decreased, recycling has increased. She also encouraged all to keep teaching, recycling, and highlighting your successes, share resources, play games for education, especially with children to build awareness and provide a change in behavior. Embark on ways to remove organics from the street, create opportunities for composting, encourage garbage disposal, source separation, and collaborate with city departments, etc.

Next, the keynote address was given by Jennifer Louie, Managing Director of Closed Loop Partners, who talked about providing financing to the recycling infrastructure. The environment has played an important role in her life. Leveraging innovative capital for environmental solutions is important in determining which company or project will succeed and yield the highest impact possible. The challenges today are virgin materials, imported recycling, and slower than expected demand ramp-up. The Closed Loop Partners’ role is not only to provide capital, but also to invest in technologies that can be scaled and built into new operations.  They look at value chains that can improve consumer behavior, empower brands, etc. Their goal is to provide technology with working capital so they can continue their work. Markets that they are looking at are: 1) Robotics and AI vision systems, 2) Track and Trace Technologies (mapping data inputs that will be required to perform need assessments and roadmaps for EPR; blockchain networks impact), and 3) Novel Collection Systems – 40% of funding to municipalities for access to recycling – carts and programs, achieved quantifiable percentage point improvements. Although the recycling rates have not moved in decades, look upstream to identify technology that addresses consumer habits in curbside collections and drop off. Look at changes to existing models, such as reverse vending machines, existing transport systems to haul the material (on track to deploy many more which will have meaningful impact on the waste stream).  Closed Loop Partners remains dedicated to building a circular economy and we need to partner if we are to still end results and make a significant change.

Supply and Markets

Moving onto “Understanding Complexities of Supply and Markets” moderated by Rita Philip, Program Director – PCR Certification for APR, the first speaker, Susan Church, Procurement Manager at EFS-Plastics, started off the discussion highlighting what the company does – 100% post-consumer processor of resin earning revenue through sales of PET flakes, PE and PP resins. She said they work with raw materials to bring in PE film (to LDPE resin), mixed plastics #5 (to PP and HDPE resin, PET flakes), and HDPE bottle grade (HDPE resin). She pointed out that it is a challenging market environment for plastic recyclers. Some of the trends that they’ve seen are a PCR increase in brand and convertor business due to 2025 voluntary goals and minimum recycled content mandates, more recycling resins are funneled to packaging applications, but there is low acceptance for recycled resin premium pricing due to low virgin material price, resin has to be a premium quality and high clarity to meet packaging specifications, and PCR has a hard time competing in unregulated markets due to cheap virgin widespread oversupply. Raw materials have ongoing overpricing due to supply/demand gap and quality declining but there is increased interest in closed loop stories from generators, and an increase in direct supply relationships with end users, increasing demand need for chain of custody. EFS Plastics is addressing the market by reiterating the importance of PCR integration in durable plastic goods, secondary and tertiary packaging; investment in sorting equipment to handle changing raw material qualities forming strategic supply partnership, share closed loop story; advocating for tac on virgin resins, petrochem industry needs to pay its share; and aiming for consistency and long-term supply contract to better control PCR quality state the importance of keeping GHG emissions in mind when building supply, PCR products, and regulations. She said the company is modeling a low impact recycling system, focusing on producing mixed plastics bales at the MRF, standardizing packaging and adapting water mark technology; selling raw materials where generated; and prioritizing mechanical over chemical recycling where possible. She said to make sure you get material from generator, become a partner, and convert material into PCR.

Nishil Soni, CEO of RiteSize, spoke on “Marketplace for Recycled Plastic Commodities”. She talked about digitization in mature commodity markets—through digitization, markets such as agriculture, freight, metallurgy, and mining have been able to enhance their efficiency, This has been achieved through the unlocking of supply, improvement in quality, and optimization of pricing. Look at: 1) Data standardization, 2) Balance in transparency, and 3) Standardization Systems of Record. She explained that annyomized data collection can improve quality standards. Data collection can mitigate supply chain risks and foster a feedback loop that drives continuous improvement in quality for the ecosystem. This results in data for manufacturers such as nonferrous material, black spec, dust particle, bale yield, customer happiness, manufacturing use case, etc. Accessing data for procurement decisioning empowers procurement teams to optimize their verification process, reduce risk in supple diversification, and trace their data. Providing access to data reduces verification processes by 30%. We need to track and trace authenticity with supply chain data. This improves portfolio diversification to de-risk balancing transparency for pricing, harnesses data, and drives accurate pricing, eliminates bias and deters manipulation attempts, creating stable and trustworthy conditions for commodity markets, which is currently present in markets such as metals, agriculture, freight and beyond. Bias can drive swinging pricing, but data precents market manipulation, increased liquidity, and reduces volatility. She also pointed out that there are potential drawbacks of digitization, so maintain and refine qualification processes, recycled content claims enforcement, verify business docs and certifications. The digital infrastructure empowers supply chain optimization by improving quality standards and building market confidence, and scenario planning for supply chain agility. It does have the potential to unlock a different level of efficiency.

Finally, Anne Johnson, Vice President of Resource Recycling Systems, provided global context for RPET imports to the U.S. The Ocean Plastics Crisis has left significant investments in plastic recycling across Asia, especially for Food Grade rPET. She discussed the plastics trends, starting with the 1990s when large global companies recognized the market potential of rapidly industrializing Asia, In the 2000s, there was a growth of U.S plastics recycling due to export of scrap to China and Asian markets peaking in 2017. However, in 2018, National Sword was implemented and there was a shift. In 2019, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste launched and from 2020 to 2021, as the COVID pandemic took hold, there was a global disruption of supply chains, south Korea allowed food contact use of rPET, and there was first food grade rPET production in SEA. From 2022 to 2024, Coke and Pepsi launched 100% rPET bottles in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent energy pricing soaring. She stressed that rPET imports are impacted by domestic and international rPET supply and demand, and global macro factors. U.S. collection has remained flat while rPET production and demand grow. In 2021, 6.74 billion pounds of U.S. PET bottles were available for recycling. However, more than two-thirds remained uncollected. Johnson stressed that U.S. is supply constrained. The reclamation capacity for rPET is over 2.8 billion pounds, 1.8 billion pounds of rPET was produced by reclaimers in 2022, bottle grade rPET is sufficient for 10% PCR. PET scrap imports are shifting to Latam and Asia. After Canada, Thailand was the second largest exporter to the U.S. in 2023. Reasons include investments to increase supply and reclamation of plastics in emerging markets; reclamation technologies with approvals for food contact rPET from FDA; and European Food Safety Authority. What does the future look like? Food grade rPET imports to the U.S. from Asia not likely to continue in long term due to increase due to rapidly growing and large regional demand. International developments: Asian stance on the use of rPET infood contact materials is evolving. Some forecasts project regional food-grade rPET demand will accelerate in Asia, potentially growing 10 to 15 times by 2030.

Advanced Recycling Technologies

The final session of the conference focused on chemical recycling. Debra Darby, Organics Recycling and Sustainability Solutions and Client Manager for Tetra Tech, moderated the session, which featured Lucy Mullany, National Policy Director for the Alliance for Mission-Based Recycling, Carla Toth, Senior VP Business Development for Nexus Circular, and Holli Alexander, Strategic Initiatives Manager, Circularity for Eastman. Mullany explained that the Alliance for Mission-Based Recycling consists of the last four non-profit recyclers in the country and said only a few formats of single-use plastics packaging are candidates for recycling in a MRF based on the residential recycling system in the U.S.—PET #1 Botttles, PET #1 Theroform, and HDPE #2 Bottles. Mechanical recycling does not change the molecular structure of the plastics before it can be reused in other plastic materials. So, what makes something recyclable? Consider end markets, value, sortability, and collection. Also need to consider factors when recycling, such as extraction reduction, environmental impacts, reduction/reuse potential, labor, toxicity, and environmental justice. Chemical recycling technologies do create health risks, do not support a zero-carbon future, perpetuate more plastic waste, undermine proven needed investments. Before considering any PtP technology, we need to consider: environmental and human health impacts—will the facility address a gap in recycling that is not already being filled by mechanical recycling or provide a complementary technology, are materials are sent to a responsible end market? Also consider what problem are you are you trying to solve? Production of plastic, surge in single-use plastics, insufficient collection, challenges with contamination and sortation, and challenges with responsible end markets.

Next, Toth talked about demystifying pyrolysis. She said that the Nexus process is specifically designed to handle a wide range of mixed films, flexibles, and foams as well as contaminated rigid containers. Advanced recycling technologies have the potential to address a wide range of plastic types and formats to complement mechanical recycling. Hard to recycle plastics have three possible end of life scenarios: 1) Landfill, 2) Incineration, 3) Pyrolysis-based recycling (extends the plastic lifecycle creating a circular loop). Pyrolysis is when thermoplastic polyolefins convert to their original molecular hydrocarbon building blocks upon heating in a closed vessel. Nexus is converting 82% of the plastic coming in to pyrolysis oil. Pyrolysis products directly replace fossil-based resources in virgin quality plastic production (therefore reducing virgin plastics use). Pyrolysis-based recycling is often mischaracterized as solid waste disposal, pyrolysis-based recycling = manufacturing, accept plastic bales, recycling = return to supply chain, plastics to plastics, resource conservation, facilities are regulated as part of the clean air act. Growth of advanced recycling requires legislative and regulatory certainty to incentivize private investment in production capacity and supporting infrastructure.

As the last speaker of the session, Alexander covered mechanical recycling (most carbon efficient when possible) and molecular recycling (necessary to renew material and avoid end of life) are complementary. Recycling systems that include both means more materials are recycled, helping to build a better circle. The goal is to take plastics back down to their building blocks, replace the source of the CHO, and reuse them out of the materials that have met the end of their useful life. Eastman is working on carbon renewable technology and polyester renewal technology. Carbon renewal technology is reforming; this is a unique approach to converting circular feed streams into basic chemical building blocks. Polyester renewal technology efficiently processes waste that is currently landfilled/incinerated. It can provide a fully circular solution, producing virgin-grade material. She stressed that continuous innovation will enable recycled polyesters with zero compromise in quality and emission approaching net zero. We need a fully circular plastics value chain without using virgin fossil feedstocks.

Once again, Josh Kelly provided the closing remarks thanking all the speakers and praising the dialogues taking place during conference, especially with regards to emerging technologies, such as chemical recycling. He thanked all attendees and sponsors and said he was humbled by the optimism he saw, especially from the large companies like Google and Eastman. He was also impressed by the pushback on skepticism, stressing that we need to push through it rather than just destroying things. That is the power of NERC.

Join NERC for their Fall Conference, in partnership with the Center for Sustainable Materials Management, taking place from October 28 – 30 at The Gateway Center at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, NY.

For more information, visit