Hello! Sorry I did not post yesterday! I took my first “vacation day!” It was awesome…slept late, had a wonderful brunch, went to the beach, and watched the Hawks game. I feel rejuvenated and ready to blog about recycling in America.

BUT FIRST, we still have to finish our recap of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s spring meeting in Boston. Where were we…?

I left off discussing the keynote speaker’s discussion of our current approaches to production and consumption as being unsustainable. For a recap of the recap, check out my April 29th post.

Let’s move on to the Bio-Material Procurement presentation, which I alluded to in the previous post. In a nut shell, this presenter argued that if we chose to utilize biomaterials to produce polymers that can replace tradition materials, we need to ensure that we consider the economic, social and environmental factors inherent in the scale and intensity required for the production of said bio-based resins. Wow that was a mouthful; let me try again.

Basically, if we are going to rely on agriculture to produce biomaterials for the creation of bio-based polymers, we need to understand what that requires from an economic, social and environmental perspective. Through a discussion of the Better Sugar Cane Initiative, the presenter illustrates how the development of procurement principles, criteria, protocols and standards facilitates the “sustainable” production of biomaterials used for the creation of bio-based plastics. I honestly don’t have much to say about this issue.

Next I sat in on the “Making a Case for Integrated Waste Management” presentation, which basically discussed the impending “product stewardship” or “extended producer responsibility” legislation. For those of you completely unfamiliar with this topic, check out my research at: http://www.dordan.com/sustainability_epr_report.shtml.

Basically, this presenter illustrated how waste management developed in the US and how our current waste management system is economically unsustainable due to the responsibility relying entirely on municipalities. This presenter, like many others, argued that the burden for funding waste management should be shifted from the municipalities to the producer/brand owner/first importer. In a nut shell: If you make it, you have to figure a way to recovery it post-consumer. $$$

After this I went and listened to a presentation about other waste-to-energy technologies: one approach consisted of transferring trash into energy by essentially vaporizing waste into a multi-use syngas via a process known as plasma gasification; the other discussed innovating in composting, high solids anaerobic digestion and biomass gasification to produce renewable energy and high-quality value-added compost products.

Both technologies seemed super cool and the PERFECT solution to plastic packaging waste, which seemed a little fishy. I asked both presenters why these technologies were not utilized and the answer was because the price of natural gas is too cheap. Ha! Economics win again; I hate the real world.

There were a lot of other presentations, none of which I found particularly informative or interesting.

The next day I sat in on the “Making Packaging Composting a Reality,” which was AWSOME. Because Dordan is now working with bio-based resins that are certified to break down in an industrial composting facility, I really wanted to understand the likelihood that these bio-based resins would break down and could break down considering the existing infrastructure. The SPC had done a survey of numerous composting facilities in the US to determine their thoughts on compostable packaging. Luckily, bio-based clamshells DO break down in a compost pile; yippee! The only problem is, this end-of-life management option is WAY MORE attractive for food packaging because composters will accept the food waste along with the bio-based package because value for them lies within the organic i.e. food waste. Consequentially, it may be difficult “selling” our biodegradable packages to a composter post-consumer because they do not have food waste…

Regardless, it was really great to learn about industrial composting facilities and understand how the introduction of new bio-based polymers affects the overall integrity of the compost.

As an aside, the only thing that was found to NOT break down were “certified compostable” cutlery…go figure!

That’s basically it; sorry the info was a little basic. I hope that the fall meeting will be much more technical and really get into the gritty details behind why certain packages/materials are recycled and others are not i.e. its all about the money, honey.

Tune in tomorrow to witness the resurrection of my fallen recycling initiative.

Tootles!

Day 17: Nov. 2, 2009

February 22, 2010

After being copied on an introductory email to the plastics marketing rep of Waste Management, I called him, hoping he would be able to provide some clarification into why clamshells are not recycled in most American communities.

This is how I summarized my conversation with the plastics marketing rep of WM to Robert:

Hey Robert,

I spoke with the plastics marketing rep from Waste Management about the feasibility of finding a market for non-beverage PET flake (the educational director at WM said that the buyers of PET specify that they don’t want PET clams in the PET beverage bales) and he said that the economics don’t support it. In other words, because of the different properties of the different types of PET (RPET, REPTG, APET, etc.), buyers of balled PET only want bottles as they have the same properties and therefore can be recycled into a new product with the same properties i.e. the green plastic cables that are used to strap components together. Also, the quantity is not there, as in the case with PET bottles, so finding a market for PET clams doesn’t seem possible in this economic environment. However, on the east and west coasts, there is a market for “non-traditional” rigid containers insofar as China will buy them to regrind and make new product.

I feel as though I have been shot! I am cooking up another idea, however, that looks to work with a retailer OR a consumer electronic producer.

The plastic rep from WM said I should look into PLA (he said that it can degrade in a landfill?) or waste-to-energy. I know how you feel about “down recycling” but he told me of a company in Madison, Wisconsin, that takes “non traditional” plastics i.e. films, foams, etc. and blends them with coal to produce steam to create electricity. He said that this is cheaper than landfilling and that the energy is being used to power U of W.

What is a plastic thermoformer to do in order to become more sustainable? Now that I have shelved the recycling idea, I don’t know the next best place to look…

If you have any insight, please let me know!

Again, thanks for all your help; I am very glad I met you!

Oh, the bitter taste of defeat.

The plastics marketing rep of WM is the one who is responsible for finding a supplier and buyer of post-consumer plastic material. Therefore, he is the guy who would be able to explain why there is no buyer of non-beverage PET flake (RPET and PET thermoforms). This is what he told me:

There is no buyer of non-beverage PET flake because no one has every invested the time or money necessary to set up this infrastructure, find a buyer, outline the specs, etc. As WM has become more sophisticated, we have been able to recycle a lot more materials than previously recycled; therefore, non-bottle PET is just another material that we are working towards being able to recycle but have not done so successfully yet.

The reason buyers of PET bottle flake do not want PET/RPET thermoforms is because of the possibility of contamination (one PVC clam could contaminate the whole bale), and the different IV between PET bottle grade and PET thermoform grade, which makes for differences in the way things “fly” and “melt” while being repossessed.  

Okay… this seems complicated but not that complicated. I know from previous conversations with Robert that most cities in California accept and recycle plastics 1-7 because of the Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, which requires local governments to reach a 50% diversion rate. This Act, consequentially, has facilitated the creation of new end markets for these materials post-consumer, which unfortunately, is not the case here.

Do we need to have legislation enacted to provide the motivation to find an end market for mixed rigid plastic containers and packages?

I then received the following email from Robert, which was very much needed in this time of defeat:

Chandler,

Try not to be discouraged.  These things take a long time to sort through and creating markets for materials is challenging to say the least!  There isn’t just an answer out there waiting to be found.  These things need to be teased into existence.  They need people (like you) to keep stoking the fire, prodding things along, and creating pressure.  Keep at it and you’ll come up with something that’ll work.  Maybe it’ll be a few things…at first…small scale.  Then maybe one will take off. 

The thing about recyclers is that they like what they know (even with Starbucks, they’re facing lots of concerns from recyclers accepting their cups with corrugated).  They know PET bottles…so they’re nervous about anything else.  Even if it were exactly the same they’d be nervous…so it’d be a matter of either proving through massive testing that it will work the same, or going for another grade of plastic.  If you created a new grade of plastic material with its own unique specifications, then everybody would know what to expect from the start.  Now…you’d have to have somebody lined up who can use that plastic…  It’s a bit of a paradox really…you can’t collect/bale the plastic if there’s nobody to buy/use it, but nobody is going to buy/use it unless there’s a good, steady supply of the stuff with consistent specifications…

Also, PLA will not degrade in the landfill; it requires a commercial composting facility. 

Have you considered moving away from single-use thermoformed containers and into more durable containers?  Can you make durable containers with the same process?  More and more places are feeling the push both from regulators and the public to go green…some are doing it through switching to PLA, some go to cornstarch, and some are going to reusables.  Eat-in facilities rather than take-out.  Options to fill customer’s dishes with food rather than their own single-use containers.  Or even the concept that’s being used with some food manufacturers (deli meats come to mind) where they sell their food product in a container that can be used again and again at home for leftovers…not for refilling its original product…but reused nonetheless.. 

Well, I’ve rambled on long enough!  Don’t give up!!!  We need people like you in industry!!

Robert

What a guy! Tune in tomorrow for more about recycling in America!

And resume scene:

As I waited for Recycle America’s educational tour guide’s response to my inquiries, I followed up with Robert about Polyflow. As you will recall, I sent Robert an email asking if he knew about Polyflow and if so, what he thought of this form of waste management.

This is what I learned:

Chandler,

What Polyflow is describing is called Pyrolysis and the technology is not unique to this company.  I’m not sure about the “vapor” part though…  There are discussions regarding this method in CA and elsewhere.  In CA, we don’t use energy recovery as a part of recycling (or diversion) so the portion of the pyrolysis that results in diesel or other fuels would not be counted in our recycling numbers.  Also, some people are afraid that if the “easy” option is presented (the same goes for incineration) then recycling for higher and better uses will have no appeal.  Using plastics for energy is seen as a lower use than using it for a new product.  For some plastics, there are not other mechanical recycling options available, but the fear is that this kind of thing would prevent new technologies being developed, that people would stop trying to find better options if the easy option is available.

Further, the analyses I’ve seen on the environmental/energetic impacts of mechanical recycling versus pyrolysis puts mechanical ahead of the game pretty much under every circumstance (assuming there is infrastructure). 

I don’t mean to shatter your hopes…it’s a good technology, and would be appropriate for a few materials that have no other options (in my personal opinion), however I think there would be challenges to implementing it wholesale (at least in CA…perhaps Il is different).

I’m surprised that the Sustainability Director of Starbucks hasn’t contacted you, he seemed interested in speaking.  I wonder if perhaps your email simply got buried.  Have you tried sending him the email again?  I’ve looked around here and I’m not sure that we really have a person on the local level that would be particularly suited.  I suppose I’m it…sorry!!

Robert

Hmmmmmm using plastics for energy is seen as a lower use than using it for a new product? That’s interesting; I didn’t know there was a hierarchy to waste management. If most plastic packaging ends up in a land fill, wouldn’t a better option be waste-to-energy? If easier, why not utilize the technology until the recycling infrastructure catches up? I wonder why CA doesn’t count this form of recovery into their recycling numbers. This seems sort of odd…

As I tried to sort through the implications of Robert’s response, I received an email from the Sustainability Director at Starbucks, yippee! He agreed to chat with me about implementing a pilot-recycling program in several NY Starbucks stores.

Little old me, I remember thinking. This is big time!

The actual email has not been included for privacy considerations.

Upon setting up a phone interview with the Sustainability Coordinator of Starbucks, I sent the following email to Robert:

Hey Robert,

Thanks for your feedback. I feel so silly; the rep from Polyflow didn’t even mention Pyrolysis, which I know about and know is not unique to this company. Thanks for clarification!

As it turns out, the Sustainability Director of Starbucks is available to talk with me, and my email did get lost in the plasma that is the internet, so thank you! I also have been engaging in dialogue with various people in Waste Management trying to figure out a way to recapture PET clamshells and what not, so I feel as though I am on the right track.

So until next time, take care and thanks again for all your help; I really appreciate it!

What are you doing for Halloween? I dressed up as a man for our office party and just got done handing out candy to everyone in the plant. It is fun to be a man for a day!

Chandler

Tune in tomorrow to learn more about recycling in America.

Cheers!

Day 11: Oct. 25, 2009

February 5, 2010

Happy Friday!

I finally figured out how to add tags to my posts, hurray!

After tagging it up, I tried searching one of my tags in the wordpress.com search engine. I started with “clamshells” and what I found was all sorts of crazy stuff. My favorite is “Death to the Clamshell” at: http://envirogy.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/death-to-the-clamshell/. Check out my reply, it’s the last one.

Anyway, while waiting for the educational tour guide’s response, I began researching incineration as a form of energy recovery for plastic packaging. As briefly discussed in my last post, Belgium is at a 96% packaging waste recovery rate because of their sophisticated recycling and incineration infrastructure. That which they can’t recycle, they incinerate. Why don’t we do that here, I wondered.

After several googling sessions, I stumbled upon this “new” technology called Polyflow. I called the number provided on the website…

After a quick Q&A with their rep, I was a little skeptical about this technology because it just sounded too good to be true. Because I didn’t know much about it, I sent Robert the following inquiry:

Hey Robert,

How’s it going? I saw Where the Wild Things Are this past weekend and it was AWSOME! You must see it at your earliest convenience.

Okay, I don’t want to be a nuisance, but have you heard of Polyflow? It is this new technology that breaks the plastic polymer chain down into its chemical components by vapor and then reconstructs the molecules in order to create diesel and fossil fuel and the monomers that make plastic polymers. This technology supposedly takes all types of plastics not currently recycled by single stream and provides the feedstock for the above mentioned products. I spoke with a representative from Polyflow and he says that this system will be economically and environmentally sustainable next year but that they are still in the pilot phase and need additional funding to construct the actual facility that will house this technology.

Any knowledge about this waste management alternative?

Moreover, I have not heard back from the Environmental Director of Starbucks and was wondering if you had unearthed any contacts at your organization that would be able to help me implement my recycling program. I have a dialogue going with SPI, our industry association, but they don’t think the economics will support it.

Hope all is well!

Best,

Chandler

My reference to SPI, the Society of Plastics Industry, was legitimate; I had spoken with one of their reps about my concerns about the environmental and plastic, specifically, recycling, and it went no where.

I first spoke with the Senior Director of State Affairs, who does a lot of petitioning for plastic on our industry’s behalf. She was aware of all the obstacles facing our industry but didn’t seem interested in helping me increase the recycling rates of plastic packaging because, as she explained, it is just not economical: If people can buy virgin resin for cheaper than recycled resin why would we work to create an end-of-life market for mixed rigid plastic packaging?

My one suggestion was to change the SPI resin ID numbers on the back of plastic packages. For instance, the number “1” indicates PET but doesn’t specify the various fillers added to the PET polymer to enhance/alter its properties. Therefore, we manufacture APET, RPET, RPETG, PETG, etc. and they are all labeled as “1” as mandated by the SPI. Because of the different additives in these polymers, the recycling facility won’t accept any thermoforms labeled “1” because they do not know how that specific additive will influence the overall integrity of the bale. Therefore, although it may be the same material as that in PET bottles, they can’t integrate it into the bales to be reprocessed for fear of contamination.

As an aside, PLA is just making its introduction into the market and I don’t know if it has been assigned a resin ID number; therefore, sorters may not be able to distinguish PLA bottles from PET bottles, thereby increasing the chances that the PET stream will be contaminated by PLA. I don’t know what the PLA people have to say about it…I will follow up with some more research in future posts.

Do check out this article; it may provide insight into the ramifications of incorporating into the PET recycling stream: http://www.linkedin.com/news?viewArticle=&articleID=107200234&gid=160429&srchCat=RCNT&articleURL=http%3A%2F%2Fblogpackaging%2Eblogspot%2Ecom%2F2010%2F02%2Fbioplastics-and-oxo-degradables%2Ehtml&urlhash=oSuc.

Anyway, I suggested that SPI be proactive and work with recyclers to develop the best labeling for resins to increase the recyclability of plastic packaging. Although this contact did not know exactly how the SPI was handling the resin ID number situation, she did say that they had a subcommittee devoted to the investigation of these issues and she would follow up with me about this subcommittee…  

Tune in Monday to see Robert’s response to my Polyflow inquiry. Good stuff to come; have a splendid weekend!

Day 5: Oct 15, 2009

January 27, 2010

Check out what I found:

 

Wow, 52% of Municipal Solid Waste was attributed to paper and paperboard products in 2007? Who’d thunk?

Okay…so while paper is the largest contributor to landfills, it has a recovery rate of above 50%. That’s pretty great. Plastic, on the other hand, has a much lower recovery rate. Why is that?

Now take a gander here:

So PET has the best recovery rate for plastic materials. We manufacture a lot of PET; that must mean a lot of our packages are recyclable. Hurray!

 And enter reality: Only PET BOTTLES are recovered in most American communities. Most other PET products, including our packages and anything labeled with the SPI resin identification #1 that does not have a thin neck ends up in a landfill. And this is because…?

 And lastly:

Okay, so there is a lot of energy stored in plastic, most of which ends up in a landfill. That seems silly, especially with the Al Gores of the world propagating the idea that we are running out of fossil fuel and must look for alternative sources for energy. Why look for energy from algae, which is awesome, don’t get me wrong, when we could just establish a better infrastructure for recovering the stored energy in plastic, a.k.a WTE? Europe is all over incineration and energy recovery…what gives?

Why not spear-head an industry-led initiative that looks to integrate non-bottle plastic packaging into the existing recycling infrastructure, I thought to myself? After all, the fact that all the plastic packaging besides bottles ends up in a landfill is bizarre; therefore, we not collaborate with those along the supply chain to find an end-of-life option for plastic packaging? Sounds like a great idea, I thought to myself.

I then followed up with Robert Carlson after my thought baby of starting a recycling initiative:

Hey Robert,

Thank you very much for the email—I understand you are busy so I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to my inquiries. I am in the process of trying to spear-head an industry led recycling program aimed at recapturing PET clamshell packages for material recovery. Yippee!

Hope all is well in sunny California. Take care and I look forward to speaking with you again in the future. If you come across anything about sustainability and packaging that you think would be of interest, please don’t hesitate to send it my way.

Best,

Chandler Slavin

Tune in tomorrow to see Robert’s feedback, which marks the beginning of a very long and convoluted attempt to alter the recycling infrastructure in America.