How Can We Recover More Plastics?
Published on February 14, 2019 | Note: A version of this article was previously published in Plastics Engineering magazine. Article updated on March 1, 2019
Part of the Path Runs Through Boise, Idaho
Plastics recycling has been growing for decades, which keeps more and more of these valuable materials out of landfills.
But like any endeavor, there have been a few bumps along the way. For example, when China recently significantly reduced the amount of U.S. plastics it accepts for recycling, some communities had to find new markets for certain plastics they collected in their recycling programs.
Communities such as Boise, Idaho.
Similar to other communities in the area, in response to China’s actions Boise announced at the beginning of 2018 that residents no longer could recycle certain plastics because the city had no immediate market for them. Instead, these formerly recyclable plastics needed to go in the trash.
But due to behind-the-scenes efforts that had been underway since mid-2017, Boise actually soon was able to reverse that announcement… and demonstrate a way to keep many of those materials out of landfills, as part of the path toward advancing a “circular economy” for plastics.
Boise’s Alternative Recovery Program
In early January 2018, Boise was awarded a $50,000 grant from Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics and Keep America Beautiful to establish a new program called the Hefty® EnergyBag® program that offered an alternative to disposing their hard-to-recycle plastics in landfills.
In spring residents received 26 orange Hefty® EnergyBag® orange bags—enough for a year —along with instructions and a list of acceptable materials to put in the bags. The instructions noted that residents should continue recycling their PET soda bottles and HDPE detergent bottles, simply by tossing them in the recycling cart, as usual. But certain other plastics —including potato chip bags, stand-up pouches, straws, stir sticks, foam containers, and juice pouches—could now be placed in the orange EnergyBag® bags and then added to the recycling cart.
Through this program, Boise was able to recover most of the plastics the city previously recycled… and some that they couldn’t recycle before, including multi-material laminate plastic packages. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter described the program as “… an innovative solution that allows us to turn a bad situation into something quite positive.”
Dow’s Hefty® EnergyBag® program began as a pilot in California in 2014 and launched its first full scale program in Omaha in late 2016. Since then through October 2018, the program has collected approximately 329,000 orange bags and diverted about 214 tons of hard-to-recycle plastics from the landfill—the equivalent of approximately 171 million snack-sized chip bags or 1,018 barrels of diesel fuels. Dow helps with planning, implementing, and measuring phases of the program, but communities are ultimately responsible for the program.
Recovery: the Road to Circularity
Boise’s orange bags are shipped to a facility in Salt Lake City operated by Renewlogy where they and their contents are transformed into a liquid fuel such as diesel, using advanced non-combustion conversion technology.
The Renewlogy facility is part of a growing number of enterprises that recover the value of plastics by converting them to fuels, industrial products, and even their original feedstocks. These enterprises complement existing recycling capabilities and can recover many plastics that today typically are not part of the traditional recycling stream. They allow communities such as Boise the opportunity to recover more plastics, keep these valuable materials out of landfills, and help meet sustainability goals.
These enterprises also represent part of the journey that has begun toward greater circularity in how plastics are made, used, and re-used. In May 2018, North America’s plastics makers announced goals to capture all packaging, preventing it from becoming waste, and committed to a circular economy for plastics. The goal: 100% percent of plastic packaging will be re-used, recycled, or recovered by 2040.
Plastics makers believe that reducing the amount of plastic packaging going to landfills is achievable through increased traditional mechanical recycling, as well as new recovery programs such as the Hefty® EnergyBag® program that deploy innovative new recovery technologies to convert hard-to-recycle plastics into useful products such as energy… or ultimately new plastics.
As news spreads of the success of Boise’s program, local officials and recyclers there anticipate that additional nearby communities will join the program in the future. A new Hefty® EnergyBag® program recently started up in Cobb, County, Georgia. And plastics makers and processors are encouraging other communities to participate in this and similar collection programs… to recover more plastics from landfills and advance a circular economy.