Ok, so I think I have dragged out the inevitable long enough. And resume recycling narrative:

Ring…Ring…

“Good Morning Dordan this is Sarah how can I help you? One moment please…”

Beep. “Chandler, Waste Management on Line 1…”

“Thanks.”

Suddenly I realized that this was the call I had been waiting on for almost 7 weeks: the results of our RPET clamshell samples’ test via the MRFs optical sorter. If our supplier-certified 70% post-consumer regrind PET clamshell packages are “read” like PET bottles via the recovery facility’s optical sorter, then perhaps we could integrate our clamshells into the existing PET bottle recycling infrastructure. If anything, the results would tell us if one of the many obstacles facing the inclusion of PET/RPET clamshells into the PET bottle recovery stream is NOT the inability to sort these two packaging types together.

I reach for the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey Chandler!”

“Hey, nice to hear from you; how’s it going?”

“Great, thanks. I have the results from the MRF regarding your samples.”

“Ok, what are they; did they pass with the bottles?”

“Yes, there was no difference between the PET bottles and RPET samples as read by our optical sorter. So if RPET clams and PET bottles were moving down the line together, there would be no luminescent difference between the bottles and clams as they moved through our plastic sorting station. Again, the main point of the optical sorter is to see the difference between PVC and PET bottles, which look dramatically different when viewed via the optical sorter.”

“This is wonderful news!”

“Well, keep in mind that regardless of this, buyers of baled PET bottles DO NOT want clams in the mix.”

“And this is because fear of contamination, different IVs and perhaps melting points, no specs for mixed bales and on and on…?”

“Pretty much hit the nail on the head.”

“Well, I really appreciate you and WM going out of your way to help us figure this stuff out. We just want to recycle our packages—didn’t know how complicated it is!”

“Well we wish you the best of luck with your recycling initiative. Please let us know if there is anything else we can do for you…”

“Truly, thanks again.”

“No problem; take care.”

“You too!”

I hung up the phone.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm…what does this mean, I asked myself?

I think it means that the molecular structures of clamshell RPET and bottle PET are the same, at least was read via the optical sorter.

So how will this help us recycle our RPET thermoforms?

It illustrates that the reason RPET clams are not recycled with bottles has nothing to do with an inability to sort the two packaging types together. So if our RPET clams and PET bottles are read the same, they could be collected and baled, with no need for different sorting technology.

Good to establish, Chandler.

Suddenly I snapped out of my internal discussion; my two colleagues were waiting tentatively outside my cubicle, eager for the results.

“They passed!” I said.

“Sweet!” they replied in unison.

“So what does this mean for us?”

“Haha, I’m not quite sure yet…”

Tune in Monday for a summary of the different obstacles hindering the inclusion of RPET clams in the PET bottle recovery stream. Once established we will move on to discuss how the following determine the recyclability of a material/packaging type: supply, demand, and technology.

Have a splendid weekend! Its Friday, woop woop!

Day 26: Nov. 21st, 2009

March 11, 2010

Hello world! Sorry I did not post yesterday—I was at home with the flu, boo. It was a rocking 60 degrees in Chicago yesterday, which sort of stinks, because I was at home in bed. I hope all those healthy Chicagoians had a blast, though.

And guess what: Because my blog is actually getting some attention (I have a phone interview with the Sustainability Coordinator of Walmart Canada about my efforts) my Superior told me I could resume my clamshell recycling initiative! He had told me to shelve my efforts because he wanted me to focus on things that would help Dordan—and not just the plastic industry in general—which was kind of my approach to finding a way to recycle thermoforms. Even in the discussion I started on greenerpackage.com I emphasized collaboration among the various thermoformers in the Midwest, which, any good business person knows, means working with your competition. Thank goodness for my Superior; without him I would probably completely forget that I was working in a business and not a classroom.

Having received the green light from my Superior, I just scheduled a meeting with our material supplier to determine why she does not like receiving PET bales with RPET/PET thermoforms in the mix.

Shall we resume our recycling narrative?

The next day I sent the following email to Robert Carlson of the CA EPA in response to his very insightful email that he sent me:

Hey!

Thanks for the email—super helpful and insightful. I am so glad I met you! I have recently been seeing how ruthless business can be and how everything has an angle or an agenda so it is nice to have a dialogue with someone who does not have any invested interest in the outcome of our conversations. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me as it’s difficult not to get jaded about being committed to sustainability only to discover that most are not and are just looking for a way to make a quick buck and using the sustainability movement to get their foot in the door. I dislike how people use the environment as a form of ethical manipulation for consumers. It is very bizarre but I guess the business world is very different from the academic world. I feel like I have so much to learn!

I actually got a really good response to some of the questions below on greenerpackage.com. I started a discussion about PET recycling and a member of the APR responded with very helpful insight. If you have a sec, you should check it out!

As per your response, you said that in CA, collectors accept mixed plastic 1-7. Do you know where/how these plastics are sorted? Do you know who the buyer is of these mixed plastic materials? I know that there is a market for mixed rigid plastic packaging on the East and West coasts because China buys it to incinerate it for energy. Ohhhh, the irony. At the same time, however, you explained that the end-market for mixed plastic is in plastic lumber operations. How can I find similar applications for mixed plastic in the Midwest?

In regard to your feedback about having consumers separate their packaging materials before leaving the store: All the obstacles you mentioned are being articulated to me by various people within the company: How do you change a consumer behavior? Who would pay to collect and reprocess the material? How would you get retailers on board? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but hopefully if I get an interview with a powerful retailer, perhaps we can make some strides in the right direction…

Do you think their will be any EPR legislation passed on packaging materials in the near future? Perhaps that is what is needed to motivate retailers to reclaim the packaging of their consumer goods…Do you think PVC will be banned in the near future (it would make it easier to implement a plastic packaging recycling program…)?

The SPC doesn’t want to tackle this issue, which is too bad, because I thought collaboration among the various plastic packaging manufacturers would be a great place to start. I don’t know if you have any other suggestions.

I am considering going to Akron, OH on Dec 9th for a technology showing of Polyflow. At the same time, however, my Superior doesn’t know what advantage that would have for us as a for-profit, which stinks. I would really like to speak with reps from Polyflow to understand the logistics of how they power the facility, where the emissions go, if there are any, and what contracts they have with municipalities to provide the raw material they need. In other words, would they work out a contract with municipalities where they would collect all plastic materials that are currently not recycled to be sent to Polyflow for energy recovery? If so, should I develop a dialogue with local municipalities to support this technology?

As per your discussion of the Starbucks pilot recycling program, you mentioned that they recycler they are working with “is known for taking and sorting everything.” Who are these mysterious MRFs? Do you think I could get in contact with them?

I know this is another intense email so if you would prefer to chat about it instead of emailing me back, that would be swell! I know you are busy so take your time as these are all ongoing inquiries and projects. Again, thanks for all your help—I feel like I am learning a ton.

Have a jolly good weekend and if I don’t hear from you, a tasty Turkey day!

P.S. Your “plastics expert” never got back to me.

Best,

Chandler

As those who have been following my blog know, I had taken my clamshell recycling initiative to the SPC hoping they may want to introduce this to the member-companies to see if this project would be of interest to the organization. I had spoken with several SPC project managers about the feasibility of this project, and to my disappointment, they did not feel as though this could be logistically introduced right now: the scope was too large and the approach to vague. The email below was in response to a project manager who had provided me with some information about non-bottle PET recycling.

Hey,

Thanks for this! I am talking with WM, the greenerpackage.com business director, NAPCOR, California Waste Management EPA and SPI to see how PET packaging can be integrated into the existing recycling infrastructure. I understand all the challenges that you outlined, but I still feel that we can create a market for recycled PET packaging, within or without the existing PET bottle flake recycling infrastructure. If this is a project of interest for the SPC, I would love to contribute. Otherwise, I will keep the SPC updated on the status of our recycling initiative.

Have a great weekend!

Best,

Chandler

I had sent this email several weeks ago and had not heard back so I assumed, as in the conversations with other representatives from the SPC, that this recycling initiative was not of interest to the SPC at this time.

In the email above where I said that the “plastics expert” had not gotten back to me, I was referring to a previous suggestion of Robert to contact the plastic rep at the CA Board of Integrated Waste Management. I sent the email below to this contact following Robert’s suggestion:

Hey,

My name is Chandler Slavin—I am the Sustainability Coordinator at Dordan Manufacturing, which is a Midwestern based custom design thermoformer of plastic clamshells, blisters, etc. I met Robert in Atlanta for the members-only Sustainable Packaging Coalitions’ fall meeting. Robert and I have been chatting about packaging and waste management ever since.

I am trying to find a way to recycle our RPET packages, either within the existing PET bottle recycling infrastructure, or by creating a new end market for mixed rigid plastic packages. I have dialogues going with several contacts at WM and it seems as though this initiative is difficult to implement for various reasons.

In regard to creating a new end of life market for mixed rigid plastic packages: This seems more difficult to implement in the near future because the quantity is not there, as is the case with PET bottles. Moreover, because of all the different materials in various kinds of plastic packaging (food, medical, consumer goods), it is difficult to collect enough of any one material to find an end market for it. In a nut shell: the cost to collect, sort and reprocess mixed rigid plastic packages (after PET bottles have been removed for end of life recovery) exceeds the cost of virgin material for plastic packages.

As eluded to by Robert, PVC packages are a problem because they contaminate the PET waste stream. I received a similar perception from the SPC, who explained that plastic packages, even if PET or RPET, are not recycled because of the possibility of having a PVC package get into the bale. What I don’t understand, however, is where are mixed rigid packages even collected for recycling where the PVC contamination would be an issue? My rep at WM explained that buyers of baled PET bottles don’t want plastic packages (clamshells) in the bales because the possibility that one may be PVC. This, however, implies that there could be a market for rigid plastic packages (PET, RPET) outside of the PET bottle recycling infrastructure. Do you know where or by whom mixed rigid plastic packages are collected for recycling?

In regard to integrating our RPET packages into the existing PET bottle recycling infrastructure: Currently, I have sent out 50 RPET clamshell samples to my contact at WM to run through their optical sorting technology to see if our RPET material is compatible with the PET bottle material (same IVs and what not). If so, we could maybe find a buyer of a mixed bale of PET bottles and RPET plastic packages (non food). After all, we have certification from our suppliers that our RPET has a minimum 70% recycled content (from PET bottles); therefore, one would assume that our material would be very similar to the PET bottle material and as such, have an end market because the quantity is already there, we are just adding to it. Moreover, if we can ensure that our plastic packages are compatible with the PET bottle material, we may be able to have our material supplier buy the mixed baled PET bottles and RPET packages to be reground and sold back to us, thus being closed loop.

As the plastics expert at the California Integrated Waste Management Board, what do you think about the above described scenarios? What do you think is a good approach to finding a way to recycle our RPET plastic packages?

Honestly, any insight you could provide would be very well received; I feel as though I have hit a wall and don’t know where to go from here.

One more thing: What do you think of Pryolysis? Robert explained it as “down cycling,” which implies it is a less superior form of material recovery than recycling. At the same time, however, I have a dialogue going with a rep from Polyflow, which converts mixed flexible and rigid plastic packages into gasoline diesel fuels? I have attached a white page from the rep at Polyflow, which explains its technology. He explains that the cost of processing unwanted mixed plastic package via Polyflow is comparable to the cost of land filling this unwanted material. Please see the attached document, if interested, and let me know if you think this is a viable option for managing plastic packaging waste.

Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Best,

Chandler

To my disappointment, I never received feedback from this contact.

Tune in Monday to see where this clamshell recycling initiative takes me next!

Day 18: Nov. 3, 2009

February 23, 2010

I felt as though I had hit a road block; while Robert’s kind words were encouraging, I felt like there was nothing I could do as an individual to create an end market for clamshells post-consumer, either as non-beverage PET flake or mixed rigid plastic flake. Perhaps on the vehicle of collaboration, we would be able to come up with the quantity necessary to create an end market for this homeless material…

I then started the following discussion on greenerpackage.com:

Where does the plastics industry go from here?

As Sean Sabre pointed out in a recent post, there is no recycling market for non-beverage PET flake i.e. the PET used in thermoformed packages (to veiw this discussion, visit http://www.greenerpackage.com/discuss/recycling/recovery_series_-_topic_2_universal_pet_recyclability_myth).

According to various contacts at Waste Management, this is because those who buy the balled PET beverage containers to recycle into other products do not want PET clams, blisters or components as it compromises the feedstock of the PET bottle flake. In other words, because PET beverage bottles have the same IV, additives and chemical properties, the quantity of that type of material is there, which allows for there to be an end market for it. Contrarily, the PET used in thermoformed packages has different properties depending on the additives used for the specific packaging application i.e. food, medical, consumer goods. Therefore, the quantity of the same type of PET is not available for the creation of an end market for this material. At the same time, however, there is a market for this type of material on the East and West coasts (“non-traditional rigid containers”) because China and other international markets undergoing industrialization buy this material for its stored energy value. In a nut shell: we can’t recycle it if the quantity is not there, which inherently means there is no market for the end life of these types of PET.

Where do we go from here? Do we, as an industry, decide on using one type of material per application i.e. one PET type for food, medical, and consumer goods in order to ensure the quantity of material necessary for the development of an end market for said material? Do we “down-cycle,” via Pyrolysis? Do we switch to PLA or other bio-resins, which require more energy to produce than traditional, fossil-based plastics and require the existence of commercial composting facilities, which are far and few a dozen? As an industry, we must collaborate if we want to reach our shared goals of sustainability.

If interested in the comments to this post, visit http://www.greenerpackage.com/discuss/thermoformed_packaging/where_does_plastic_industry_go_here

Once I reached out to the larger packaging community about my concerns as a packaging professional, I sent the following email to a project manager at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. As the tone of my above conversation implies, I was hoping that collaboration would begin with member companies of the SPC:

Hey,

Just out of curiosity, do you have any relationship with SPI (Society of the Plastic Industry) or other packaging trade organizations? I have begun a dialogue with said organization in regard to the SPI resin identification numbers and the feasibility of recycling non-beverage PET flake i.e. clamshells, blisters and thermoform components. We are trying to figure out a way to recapture our thermoformed packages, which currently are not recycled. We can’t decide if a closed loop system would be best, as is in the case with electronics and batteries, or if working with the existing recycling infrastructure would be more beneficial.

What is the SPC’s stance on the feasibility of recycling non beverage PET flake? Do you think a project like this would be something of interest for the SPC?

Best,

Chandler

Let’s hope the SPC wants to help! Tune in tomorrow for more exciting happenings in the world of sustainable packaging initiatives!

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!

Day 16: Oct. 29, 2009

February 19, 2010

Happy Friday! Spring is just around the corner! I hope everyone has splendid plans for the weekend; if you live in Chicago, you should subscribe to groupon.com, which emails you coupons for the best deals in town everyday! I am cashing in on one of them tonight…

Anyway, let’s resume our clamshell recycling narrative:

Grateful for the educational tour guide’s detailed responses to my inquiries about recycling clamshells, I sent her the following email upon arrival to the office:

Hello,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply; I really appreciate it. I am going to investigate the websites you supplied in the email. In the mean time, please feel free to connect me with your plastic rep.

Thank you again for your feedback!

Best,

Chandler

After sending this into the plasma that is the internet, I began going through my inbox, eager to find anything that would continue to provide direction for this clamshell recycling initiative.

The first was from the Sales Director of the SPI, responding to my phone call follow up email:

Chandler,

Sorry to be late in my response.   I am working on putting you in touch with the people who can better answer your questions.   Unfortunately, between vacations and a benchmarking conference we are sponsoring this week, I am having difficulty getting in touch with those people.

However, we will be in touch with you shortly.  

Thanks again for your interest in SPI.

Okay, sounds good. Next I found a response from the APR (Association of Post-consumer Recyclers) in regard to my inquiry about this organization:

Chandler,

Thank you for your interest in plastics recycling and the APR. I have attached a membership application for your review. Please take a look and let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to working with you.

Thanks!

I downloaded and opened the application.

Apparently, depending on your level of engagement with recycling/recycled plastics, different membership categories ensue:

Description of Membership Categories:

  • Full Membership—those companies actively engaged – in North America – in performing physical operations of any kind on post-consumer plastics as part of the process of recycling such plastics. (Please see brochure for detailed definition)
  • Affiliate Membership—companies that do not qualify for Full Membership and that have a direct business stake in the recycling of post-consumer plastics, except brokers. 

Moreover, depending on which kind of membership you apply for, different fees ensure, which is based on your capacity for engaging in the process of recycling post-consumer plastics.

Dordan Mfg. has a closed loop system with its material supplier in which we grind our scrap post-industrial and sell it back to our suppliers to be formed into sheets for future conversion. Therefore, while we do engage in a process of recycling (collecting and grinding our post-industrial scrap), I don’t believe we can qualify for full membership because it specifies post-consumer, as opposed to post-industrial, recycling processes.

Hmmmm…I don’t know if this pertains to us exactly….And, there are annual membership fees…perhaps I can persuade my Superior to consider this?

            …ten minutes later…

As in the case with joining NAPCOR, my boss doesn’t see the economic justification for joining the APR at this point in time: the economy is bizarre and he already brought me on as the Sustainability Coordinator; my role, he explained and continues to emphasize, is to understand sustainability from the role of a packaging professional in order to further the success of Dordan and implement logistical, economically viable initiatives: “Don’t let your passions get in the way,” he said to me. Again, another realization that this was not a school project but a profession that only exists as long as it is economically sustainable.

So, now that I have researched the various recycling trade groups but am unable to apply for membership, there has to be more things I can do to further this clamshell recycling initiative…

Luckily, I received an email from the educational tourguide at Recycle America, a division of Waste Management, following through with her offer to put me in touch with some people that may be able to help forward my clamshell recycling initiative:

Chandler,

You should be seeing two emails with you copied on them as an introductory.  One will be to our plastic rep and the other will be to one of our municipality reps.

The educational tourguide copied me on the following emails:

Hello,

Chandler Slavin is inquiring about the market challenges of clamshell containers among other things.  As a Sustainable Coordinator for his company and a member of the IoPP (Institute of Packaging Professionals), she wants direction on how to go about researching best practice collections for the packaging his company creates.  Could you spare a few minutes to answer some more specific marketing questions?

And:

Hello,

Chandler Slavin is inquiring about the recycling challenges of clamshell containers among other things.  As a Sustainable Coordinator for her company and a member of the IoPP (Institute of Packaging Professionals), she wants direction on how to go about researching best practice collections for the packaging his company creates and asked if she should look into questioning the municipalities as a part of this research.  Could you spare a few minutes to answer some more specific municipality questions?

Thanks!

Groooooooovy. Tune in on Monday to learn more about the intricacies of recycling and waste management in America.

Day 15: Oct. 28, 2009

February 18, 2010

I just spoke with my contact at Recycle America, a division of Waste Management. She is excited about what I am doing and wants to help; she just wants to make sure that I contextualize our conversations so things are not misinterpreted going forward.

Let me provide a quick summary of the role Recycle America/Waste Management has in recycling plastic packaging:

Waste Management collects materials to be recycled via curbside collection and community drop-off centers. This is a single stream system, which means that the individual must still separate it from garbage, but can now place papers, glass, metals and plastics together in ONE collection bin.  Once collected from the curb, the materials are brought to a recycling facility where they are further sorted: HDPE milk jugs are removed and bailed, cardboard, PET bottles and any other material that has a “home” are removed from the stream and designated to their specific bailing location. A home means that there is an end market for it. In other words, if there is not a buyer of this post-consumer material, then Waste Management can’t economically validate the separation and bailing of said material, which unfortunately is out of their control. As the educational tour guide explained to me, they want to find a home for every material; however, if the market is not there and there is no buyer, there is nothing they can do because the cost to bail and warehouse the homeless material exceeds the operational costs of the facility at this time.

So, while Recycle America accepts a lot of different materials for recycling, if there is no buyer, the material must be land filled. This ebbs and flows with the changing marketplace, however. The educational tour guide explains this relationship as follows: Recycle America is the distributor of post-consumer materials. They have contracts with different brokers who buy the bailed material and convert it into another usable product. Reclaimed plastic material gets sent to a plastic house, where it is cleaned and turned into flake or pellets to be sold to packaging material suppliers; reclaimed paper material gets sent to a paper mill, where they retrieve the fiber content and reprocess it into recycled paper products.

In a nut shell: Recycle America collects, sorts and bails materials post-consumer that have a home or an end-of-life buyer, like a plastic material supplier or paper mill. While Recycle America tries to find a home for every material, depending on the marketplace, some materials must be land filled. This too, however, must be put into context with the changing marketplace and the economics of supply and demand.

Now that we have contextualized the role Waste Management plays in recycling, let us turn to the email I received from the educational tourguide of Recycle America, which helps explain the complexities of recycling:

Chandler,

I very much appreciate your patience and so sorry that you had to check in again before I could respond (yikes – don’t ever tell me to take my time . . . it always gets away from me!!)

I also wanted to thank you for the kind words.  I do try to be as honest as possible (without being confusing) as I believe it is the only way we can all work towards the most efficient and effective recycling efforts.

I will answer these questions as best I can.

1. as you explained, you would like to find a home for every kind of material; however, that is not always the case because a material’s ability to be recycled is often determined by the quantity of material available in the waste stream. Watching the live feed video yesterday, I was startled to observe that no clamshells, blisters, or plastic packaging of any kind was making its way through your sorting system. Why is that? Is there just not that much plastic packaging out there, (which I find unbelievable), or, are these materials being sent somewhere else or just thrown in the garbage? If sent somewhere else, where? And if just thrown into the garbage, why?

Very good questions.  I’ll try to break this down based on what I know at this time. 

a)  Materials, like clamshells are changing.  Originally, many were #6 PS – now many are PET . . . (very hard to tell on our lines first) and as I understand it – it’s a recycled PET . . . our buyers are very specific in what they want IN these bales – bottle-form only.  WHY ???? I imagine it has to do with how these other containers process in the melting stage . . . I am no scientist but my plastic Rep can best answer this. 

b)   As for the volume issue – this is one of our biggest challenges with specific materials for our TYPE of facility.  Many things can get recycled but in a sorting facility like this one – VOLUME is key.  What might appear to the general public as a lot – is really not when you take a look at our tipping floor.  The open markets who buy our bales set the specs on what they want IN the bale (this is out of our hands).  If they do not want a certain material – like a lot of those clamshells, we would have to pull those.  If we are to find the soundest markets, it depends on gathering enough of a particular material to make a specific bale – then we need to make several bales to make a truck-load.  This is where it boils down to pure volume challenges.  We cannot just collect something for a while until we have enough of it.  That is why redirecting certain materials to smaller markets works good sometimes – but the CONSUMER has to do this part.  Future hope is to have enough of ANY material to make it’s OWN bale . . . all things take time and in the heart of the growing pains, there will be some casualties – while we (remember – just the middle sorting man) CONTINUE to work towards best-practices.  This is where the consumer can becomes more savvy and assist in finding a better home for it temporarily but what you will find is that many will not have the time to put towards this special attention – so we would rather they error on recycling with these things and let us figure it out.  A general 1-5 plastic is stated and we output as the market allows.  We have to be general with the public in literature as it would confuse too many things as these markets continue to ebb and flow.  But YOU, the packaging side needs to understand what the current challenges are and spec accordingly – make sense? 

c)  As far as these materials being sent somewhere else rather than coming in here – some unfortunately end up in a landfill simply because people will throw them in garbage.  Others will be mindful to check local markets for collectors of this stuff and others are simply making sure they are not using these containers – I cannot know for sure where all these are going. 

2.      If I want to attain my goal of being able to implement a recycling program for non-beverage PET flake in this region, where do you suggest I start? Should I begin a dialogue with all the plastic packagers in the region to find a way to reclaim our packages in order to divert them from ending up in a landfill? Should I begin with the local municipalities? Or with the waste management facilities?

YES . . . to ALL the above.  But I think you need to start from the outside and work your way up as a means of collecting facts about the challenging markets.  Start with our plastic marketing rep (I will provide an introductory email for you).  Pull off some of the local community / municipality guides and see whose collecting and marketing these in the area.  Check out sites like:  www.earth911.org , www.freecycle.com and see what those places are suggesting to their communities.  And YES, most importantly, take the gathered information of limited available markets and sit with your plastics packagers and CREATE an END MARKET and convenient collection options for these harder to place materials.  The creator of the package should step up to assisting in finding or creating markets for these materials.

3.        How do you feel about incineration as a form of waste management?

It’s one of a few great ways to manage solid waste.  We have our own called Wheelabrator.  They are incredible waste to energy facilities – but there are only 21 sites so far as the cost to build one has to be justified.  The filtration system alone is incredible – the air that comes out of those facilities is probably cleaner than what you and I breath now – they’re heavily monitored – check them out on our educational site:  www.thinkgreen.com.

Again – a great way to MANAGE waste.

4.      Today in the packaging world, there is a lot of marketing that positions one packaging material as more “environmentally friendly” than another; often this debate places paper in opposition to plastic. After performing several months of research on this debate, I have discovered that while plastic comes from oil (which is obviously not a renewable resource) and requires more energy to create than paper, it doesn’t release as many VOC and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as does the paper and pulp mills in the US. Therefore, it is a trade off and packaging material should be selected on a case-by-case basis depending on the application of the package. I was just wondering, where do you stand in the paper versus plastic debate? How can plastic packaging become more sustainable?

Yeah, I was getting ready to duck when that little debate started to air.  Please know that I respect individual passion pleas – I think the world needs to have passions in order to spur good works, it’s just passions need perspective in place or it usually ends up becoming ineffective.  I represent WMRA . . . and I also have my personal thoughts but in this “debate”, I believe my company would agree with what I am about to share.  I (we) cannot take sides.  NOT because I am not more passionate on one side or another . . . but rather because we all have to keep PERSPECTIVE.  There’s an argument for anything in life.  If I’m preaching about learning to spend energy better by making certain choices like recycling that spend energy smarter – I won’t waste my personal energy trying to ARGUE these points – you know?

Here’s the deal – NO package is perfect.  Nature – natural resources in and of themselves are perfect but the minute we start changing things and creating new things out of them, we alter how they will break down – period.  Any packaging has pros and cons to it’s production.  Sadly a lot of packaging should probably have never been created.  Old way of doing things never had this much packaging. REDUCE is the first part of the recycling structure yet no one pays attention to it. So, now that we are HERE, we have to work together to MANAGE what is on the market.  We have to work together to create effective recovery plans for EACH package.  And when packaging cannot be recovered – it needs to go away.   Sadly, we cannot simply just make one system disappear as it would cause negative overload in another area:  ONLY paper package would greatly deplete forestry – only plastic packaging would greatly impact petroleum . . . again just my take on things.

Okay, that is a lot of questions. I would love the chance to speak to you about this in person or over the phone. When is a good time to reach you?  

I can make myself available for a conversation but it will probably not be until next week – sorry – just packed full of tours.  Let me know if you have time next week and I will try to coordinate time.

If there is anything I can do for you—be it supply you with some of the research I have compiled on the sustainability of packaging materials, or speak to students about our sustainability efforts in the plastic packaging industry, please let me know.

I would love to take you up on this and will chat about this in detail when we speak.  Thank you for making yourself available – I not only enjoy learning more personally but find it necessary to be able to communicate effectively in these discussions.

Again, it was a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to speaking with you again!

P.S. Could you please provide the contact information of your “plastic marketing guy?” Moreover, is there someone in your organization that could provide me with the contact information of someone in the local municipalities?

I will send you introductory email on both our contacts.  Hope this all makes sense.

Wow. That is a lot of really good information. Another bread crumb? I’d say several!

Tune in tomorrow to see where this information takes me!

Day 9: Oct. 20, 2009

February 3, 2010

Sorry I didn’t post yesterday! I was on a deadline to finish a condensed version of my research on sustainability and packaging titled, The Facts. Check it out under the sustainability tab at www.dordan.com

Okay, back to the story:

The day after I received the “ok” from Robert, I sent the Environmental Director of Starbucks the following email:

Hello,

My name is Chandler Slavin—I am the Sustainability Coordinator at Dordan Manufacturing, a Midwestern based custom thermoformer. I was given your information from Robert Carlson with the California Integrated Waste Management Board, whom I met in Atlanta at the SPC members-only fall meeting. I believe I also met you (sort of) in one of the break out seminars on “Closing the Loop” (where you the one who asked how Starbucks cups could be integrated into the existing recycling infrastructure?)

Anyway, Robert said you may be of assistance because you were involved with implementing the pilot recycling program in several New York Starbucks stores and I am trying to implement a pilot recycling program in the Midwest for reclaiming thermoform PET clamshells, blisters and components. I have so many questions for you I don’t know where to start: Are the Starbucks cups compatible with the existing recycling infrastructure i.e. can they be recycled with other paper/cardboard products or do they need to be sorted? If sorted, by whom and where? Did you begin with the municipalities and the local MRFS to determine what can be recycled in your region and what is needed to allow a new product into the recycling stream? Where is the funding for this program coming from?

Yikes! The list could go on and on. Would it be possible to speak with you about your sustainability efforts at Starbucks over the phone? I would love to set up a phone interview with you at your earliest convenience. Please let me know when and where I can reach you.

Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to speaking with you soon!

Best,

Chandler

After sending, I automatically received an “out of the office” reply. Rats!

Luckily I scheduled a fieldtrip to the Recycle America Waste Management Facility in Grayslake with the Institute of Packaging Professionals. It was the first time I got to see a modern MRF in action!

The Dordan Sales Force and I set out on our journey to Grayslake; the wind was in our hair, the pastoral scenery was all around, and Tony’s Famous Subs were in sight. After a scrumptious filling of salami and ham, we made it to the recycling facility.

The two hours we spent at the Grayslake facility were jammed packed: we had a tour of the facility, got to watch live footage of the process of recycling, and had a Q&A session. During the Q&A session, my fears were confirmed: Most plastic clamshells do not get recycled at this current time, even if they make it to the material recovery facility. Ug!

While Waste Management says that it accepts plastics 1-7 for recycling and tries to find an end-market for these materials, only PET beverage bottles are currently being processed at this facility because of the current market demands; this changes with the ebbs and flow of the market, however. Our educational tour guide did explain that this is because the buyers of the PET bales specify that they do not want any thermoforms in the bale, even if it is the same material type.

As an aside, on the East and West coasts, mixed rigid plastic packaging is collected and recycled because of the different markets available and the overseas demand.

The day after our field trip, I sent the following email to our educational tourguide:

 Hello,

This is Chandler Slavin—we met yesterday at the Recycle America Waste Management facility in Grayslake. I was with the Institute of Packaging Professionals and I kept asking about how we could create a recycle stream for non-beverage PET flake i.e. clamshells, blisters and trays.

I just wanted to drop you a quick email thanking you for allowing us to visit the facility and for presenting such an honest discussion of waste management and recycling in this region.

Being a representative from the plastic packaging industry, I was wondering if I could pick your brain in regard to the following:

  1. As you explained, you would like to find a home for every kind of material; however, that is not always the case because a material’s ability to be recycled is often determined by the quantity of material available in the waste stream. Watching the live feed video yesterday, I was startled to observe that no clamshells, blisters, or plastic packaging of any kind was making its way through your sorting system. Why is that? Is there just not that much plastic packaging out there, (which I find unbelievable), or, are these materials being sent somewhere else or just thrown in the garbage? If sent somewhere else, where? And if just thrown into the garbage, why?
  2. If I want to attain my goal of being able to implement a recycling program for non-beverage PET flake in this region, where do you suggest I start? Should I begin a dialogue with all the plastic packagers in the region to find a way to reclaim our packages in order to divert them from ending up in a landfill? Should I begin with the local municipalities? Or with the waste management facilities?
  3. How do you feel about incineration as a form of waste management?
  4. Today in the packaging world, there is a lot of marketing that positions one packaging material as more “environmentally friendly” than another; often this debate places paper in opposition to plastic. After performing several months of research on this debate, I have discovered that while plastic comes from oil (which is obviously not a renewable resource) and requires more energy to create than paper, it doesn’t release as many VOC and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as does the paper and pulp mills in the US. Therefore, it is a trade off and packaging material should be selected on a case-by-case basis depending on the application of the package. I was just wondering, where do you stand in the paper versus plastic debate? How can plastic packaging become more sustainable?

 kay, that is a lot of questions. I would love the chance to speak to you about this in person or over the phone. When is a good time to reach you?  

If there is anything I can do for you—be it supply you with some of the research I have compiled on the sustainability of packaging materials, or speak to students about our sustainability efforts in the plastic packaging industry, please let me know.

Again, it was a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to speaking with you again!

P.S. Could you please provide the contact information of your “plastic marketing guy?” Moreover, is there someone in your organization that could provide me with the contact information of someone in the local municipalities?

Best,

Chandler

Tune in tomorrow to see our educational tour guide’s answers.

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.

Day 1: Oct. 8th, 2009

January 21, 2010

While at my first “business conference” in Atlanta for the members-only Sustainable Packaging Coalition (hereafter, SPC), I had the opportunity to chit-chat with Robert Carlson of the California Integrated Waste Management Board; he was there to participate in a break-off seminar about Extended Producer Responsibility legislation, which would make those responsible for putting products on the shelf also responsible for reclaiming a certain percentage of their products’ packaging post-consumer. Europe already has a very sophisticated EPR system in place resulting from the 1994 EU Directive on Packaging Waste, which dictated that all participating EU countries had to reclaim a certain percentage of packaging post-consumer. Belgium, for instance, is at a 96% packaging recovery rate, which is outstanding.

Anyway, before I get off track, I approached Robert during a networking break because he was the only person there wearing clogs and looking like he may have an interest in jam band music, which was my college obsession. I quickly learned that he was not dressed-to-impress because he works for the State of California; as such, he was not there to buy or sell anything, which certainly made his time there more enjoyable. Once we established shared interests over the environment and beer (he brews his own beer in his past time), we agreed to go to the hotel bar and relax. While there, I quickly learned that Rob would be a very valuable contact for me in the Sustainable Packaging industry. After a Vodka and Cranberry, I retreated to my room to catch some shut-eye before the next jam-packed day at the conference.

I didn’t see Rob again while in Atlanta; he flew back to sunny Cali and I returned to Chicago.

Back in the office, I shot Rob an email:

Hello Rob,

This is Chandler—we met at the SPC members-only meeting in Atlanta two weeks ago. How’s it going? Happy to be home?

Although I wanted to drop you a line and say “it was really great to meet you,” (which it was), I actually have a research inquiry that you may be able to help me with.

As you know, I have been researching issues pertaining to packaging and sustainability for several months. Having joined the SPC, I gained access to all their research, which documents the LCA of common polymer and fiber-based packaging materials. With this research, I have charted: (1) the energy requirements of common polymer packaging materials (how many million Btus are needed per 1,000 lbs of resin produced), (2) greenhouse gas emissions in polymer production (how many thousand lbs of CO2 equivalents are generated per 1,000 lbs of resin produced), (3) energy requirements of corrugated containerboard and boxboard production (how many million Btus are needed per 1,000 lbs of material produced), and (4) the overall emissions of common polymer packaging materials (air, water and solid waste emissions). This is all good and fine, but I am running into a problem: I can’t find the same information that I charted for plastic for paper. In other words, I would like to chart the greenhouse gas emissions generated in paper production in order to compare with the emissions generated in plastic production. The fiber-based packaging material brief supplied by the SPC simply states that “the combined total direct and indirect emissions for 2005 virgin and recycled production were 1736.3 tons.” Moreover, in regard to water waste generated by paper production, the only statistic I can find is that 91% of the total TRI chemicals discharged in the water that year were done so by paper U.S. pulp and paper mills.

Okay, I know that that is a lot of information and that you may not be the person that I need to talk to; at the same time, however, I was curious if you could point me in the direction to be able to find more information pertaining to these issues or perhaps provide me with some references within the EPA who could provide the information I am looking for.

Regardless of your feedback, I hope all is well. Are you going to any conferences this month?

Best,

Chandler Slavin

Sustainability Coordinator

Dordan Mfg. Co. Inc.

I am a long-winded emailer, so I apologize in advance. Anyway, this email marks the first of a long and fruitful exchange of information relating to packaging and sustainability; of which, recycling begins to take center stage, as you will soon see. Tune in tomorrow to see Rob’s response, which is just the tip of the iceberg in regard to the complexities surrounding the relationship between business and the environment.