Sonoco Recycling makes significant headway in polypropylene (PP) recovery following big grants awarded over the course of a year.
The Recycling Partnership’s Polypropylene Recycling Coalition awarded $7 million to dozens of material recovery facilities (MRFs) over the last two years. The money has helped MRFs like ours invest in new infrastructure and sorting equipment, plus community outreach efforts.
Polypropylene is a plastic commodity used in a wide range of products, from single serve containers to consumer packaging. It’s been historically hard to recover, one of the least-recycled plastics due to cost and volume; however, technological advancements and partnerships have led to improvements. The Polypropylene Recycling Coalition estimates about 25 million new pounds of PP are now recovered annually, thanks to recent, scalable solutions in packaging and recycling systems.
Sonoco Recycling Field Procurement Manager Patrick McDonald sat down to discuss our specific, strategic initiatives over the past year and their catalyzed impact:
How has Sonoco Recycling used its grant money over the past year? What improvements have been made so far?
We’ve invested heavily in new sorting and recovery equipment across the Carolinas where people have access to polypropylene collection. New equipment went online at our MRF in Jacksonville, North Carolina in April 2022 and in Columbia, South Carolina in August 2022. This has significantly increased our polypropylene recovery at both locations.
Talk about the new PP sorting equipment. How does it work exactly?
It’s a robotics and vision-guided technology system that can count millions of discrete polypropylene materials daily. It’s a challenging task for humans and can be a full-time job for someone in a challenging labor market, not to mention an increased risk for human error.
This technology improves our ability to recognize and sort different objects made of polypropylene, along with a wide variety of other recyclables, and I believe it’s the right step forward for material recovery facilities like ours.
Provide a specific example on how we’ve advanced PP recovery.
In 2020, How2Recycle® determined polypropylene containers were not accepted at a level that would allow them to bear their ‘widely recyclable’ label, so they downgraded them to a ‘check locally’ status instead. That decision has since been partially reversed for items like rigid polypropylene tubs, bottles, jugs, and jars, as more than half the country now has access to polypropylene collection with efficient sorting equipment like ours.
Sortation trials and testing have confirmed our ability to effectively recycle polypropylene rigid containers and other products. An advanced process can successfully separate different plastic components that can be made into new plastics, thus supporting the circular economy.
How has our equipment upgrades improved PP recycling totals?
At our MRF in Columbia, we’ve recovered 72 tons of polypropylene, and in Jacksonville, we recovered 225 tons since the new equipment.
These numbers are incredible, but we still have a long way to go. For perspective, limited data from The Recycling Partnership suggests as much as 17 pounds of polypropylene may be available per year from a single-family household. Total annual polypropylene tonnage from US single-family households would equate to an estimated 827,000 tons or 1.65 billion pounds.
What are your hopes for future PP recycling and recovery efforts?
There is an immediate need to ensure the long-term viability of polypropylene plastic as an accepted and recycled material. We need to continue to increase curbside polypropylene access, ensure recyclers can properly detect and sort them in their facilities, and maintain vibrant and robust end markets to supply high-quality, recycled polypropylene for use in packaging.
What’s on the horizon for Sonoco Recycling next year? Do you have additional plans to improve PP recovery?
The main plan is to continue investing in our infrastructure and equipment. We’ve already budgeted for new equipment at our flagship facility in Raleigh, North Carolina, like the ones in Jacksonville and Columbia. The Raleigh installation is expected to take place in the first quarter of 2023 and we’re incredibly excited to start the New Year off on the right foot.
About Sonoco Recycling
Sonoco Recycling has more than 40 processing facilities throughout the US and Europe and collects nearly 3 million tons of paper, plastic, metal and other materials annually. The organization is a unit of leading global packaging company Sonoco and has more than 15,000 customers, retailers and manufacturers who work together to save money and resources. To learn more about Sonoco Recycling or to inquire about a full-service, tailored recycling solution, visit our Recycling Program page.