Hilex Poly Co. leading by example in battle against plastic bag bans

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Chris Dickson, operations manager at Hilex Poly's recycling plant, displays a handful of freshly extruded recycled resin. (Plastics News photo by Jessica Holbrook)

NORTH VERNON, IND. (May 24, 1:45 p.m. ET) — Phil Rozenski doesn’t like bag bans.

The director of marketing and sustainability at Hilex Poly Co. LLC travels the country trying to educate the public about plastic bags. He works with retailers, speaks at city council meetings and meets with lawmakers to promote a different answer to the plastic waste problem.

“Banning and taxing isn’t a solution, it’s avoiding developing solutions, and we’re looking at solutions that create a sustainable product,” Rozenski said.

Hilex, based in Hartsville, S.C., says it runs the world’s largest closed-loop plastic bag recycling facility, reprocessing more than 25 million pounds of post-consumer plastic a year at its North Vernon plant.

The plant churns out pellets used to make thousands of plastic bags — in hues of gray, blue, tan and yellow — that contain up to 40 percent recycled polyethylene.

The bags are used at retailers throughout North America, at national chains like Kroger and Toys R Us, and at smaller regional and local stores. If everything goes according to plan, those bags will eventually end up back at the plant.

It’s all part of Hilex’s closed-loop Bag-2-Bag recycling program.

The company has collection bins at more than 30,000 retail locations in North America. Customers are encouraged to return plastic store bags, along with other packaging like shrink wrap and dry-cleaning bags.

When a bin is full, retailers collect the returns, along with pallet wrap and other discarded plastic, and send them to their companies’ distribution centers on trucks that are returning to the center after making a delivery.

“We’re using a logistics system that was underutilized, so [there’s] zero carbon footprint to collect it,” Rozenski said.

Hilex installs or leases a trailer at the distribution center to store the collected and baled material. When the trailer is full, Hilex coordinates a pickup, compensates the retailer for the material, and brings it to North Vernon.

Then the fun begins.

When Hilex began recycling at the North Vernon plant, the company had trouble finding the perfect machine.

Instead, operations manager Chris Dickson and his team of engineers spent six months developing their own system. The completed system uses machines al­ready on the market, but modified and cobbled together to fit the plant’s requirements, Dickson said.

Hilex says it’s proof that recycling doesn’t require special machines. Anyone can do it.

The system uses mostly rainwater that is filtered and recirculated, and it’s close to being a zero-waste facility. Engineers are searching for a way to use the small amount of material that is sent to a landfill, Dickson said.

The plant has two sorting lines — a dry line for stretch and pallet wrap, and a wash line for plastic bags.

Both lines are hand-sorted to remove large contaminants before the material goes through additional processes that use float tanks and magnets to remove debris. The material then goes through several extruders to ensure it’s clean.

Plastic bags contain more contaminants, so recycling requires a few more steps, including a wash line and subsequent dryer. The most common contaminant is store receipts, but workers have found everything from diamond rings to bowling balls, Dickson said.

The cleaned material is combined with industrial plastic scrap, from Hilex plants or purchased from other manufacturers, and pelletized.

Throughout the entire process, the material is tested and monitored for quality.

“Just because we’re making a recycled resin doesn’t mean we have a free pass. All of our resin has to be competitive with virgin resin,” Dickson said.

The plant floor is also home to a research lab where engineers run pellets on a mini-extruder and test for molecular structure, incompatibility and heavy metal and other contaminants.

“This is something that’s going to touch your food,” Rozenski said. “We go really far to make sure there’s no contamination.”

Employees pull a material sample at least once every hour. If a deficiency is detected, the operator immediately shuts down the machine, diverts the material, and calls in someone to investigate, said Betty Ogez, an extrusion operator at the plant.

Once passing quality tests, the resin is sent to Hilex’s manufacturing plant next door for converting, or shipped to one of the firm’s eight other locations.

The recycled resin is competitive in price with virgin resins, and passes the same quality tests, according to Rozenski.

Steady growth

Hilex began recycling at its North Vernon location in 1994 and 10 years later broke ground on a major expansion that would double capacity. The newly expanded plant opened in 2009 and hasn’t stopped growing.

In recent years, the volume of post-consumer material the plant receives has exploded. At first, the plant would only get about a truckload a week; now it’s running at full capacity, Dickson said. In the last six months, the plant added 45 jobs, bringing the total number of employees to 75.

It isn’t just growing in size. The company has made big strides in innovation, Rozenski said.

It used to be difficult to make pellets that would produce a high-quality, thin-gauge film, so five or six years ago most people thought that recycling on a large scale was impossible, he said,

“There’s all these myths that recycling is a failure, that it can’t be done,” Rozenski said, adding that while that might have been true 10 years ago, current technology has changed that.

“[Recycling] is a proven fact. We’ve got bags right here and we recycle them,” Ogez said.

On average, Hilex’s bags now contain about 30-32 percent recycled content, up from 29 percent last year. Some contain up to 40 percent, Dickson said.

Hilex also is experimenting with new sources of recycled materials, like milk jugs or discarded plastic shopping carts.

“It’s not just about our industry. We’re making all plastics more sustainable,” Rozenski said.

The company has also refined its color-sorting process, finding ways to make bags that are blue and yellow instead of just gray and tan.

The color is a byproduct of using recycled material. The darker the bag, the more recycled content it contains, Rozenski said.

“It’s like when you were a kid and you’d finger paint. If you ever had a chance to mix a bunch of colors together with your hands, it kind of turns into a grayish color or brownish color depending on what they are,” Rozenski explained.

Getting stores to use the colored bags has been one of the bigger challenges.

Most stores use white plastic bags, made from virgin high density PE, because white displays their logos prominently. But a more widespread understanding of sustainability, and a push from consumers, has changed many retailers’ minds, Rozenski said.

The bags are also a source of education and marketing — each bag proclaims that it’s made with recycled content and encourages consumers to keep the loop going, he said.

Over the next few years, retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will transition to using the gray bags in its stores, he added.

Hilex’s success is proof that banning and taxing isn’t the answer, Rozenski said.

“We understand that people are looking for alternatives to reduce plastics in the waste stream,” he said. “This is a great story of an industry that’s taken responsibility and gone into closed-loop recycling.”

Legislation doesn’t address the plastic waste problem, said Christopher Bastardi, senior account executive with Edelman, a public relations firm with offices in New York and Chicago that’s working with Hilex.

Bans encourage consumers to buy reusable bags that often take more energy to produce. Consumers reuse shopping bags multiple times, usually as bin bags or lunch bags, so bans require them to purchase additional plastic bags to fill that purpose, he said.

Bag bans also ignore the role plastics plays in the economy, Rozenski said.

Hilex has created hundreds of jobs through recycling, both at its plants and at other manufacturers, from the truck drivers who transport recycled material to the employees who process that material, he said.

“It’s not just about bags. When you talk about an industry, it’s not machines and a product. It’s people. It’s people and innovation,” he said.

Reaching lawmakers has been difficult; some of them refuse to believe that recycling is viable option. But the company has had success promoting its message to other audiences, he said.

The North Vernon plant is running at full capacity, so Hilex has partnered with recyclers that have excess capacity. The plants reprocess the recycled material, and Hilex purchases the pellets to make bags, Rozenski said.

“This has become an industry trend. It’s no longer going to be just Hilex. We’re leading the way and we’re helping groom other people to be successful as well,” he said.

Other industries and manufacturers are also starting to embrace closed-loop recycling, a move Rozenski encourages.

“If there was ever an industry where you really want to see competition, recycling is it,” he added.

“People are going to realize that bans and taxes are not addressing the problem,” he said. “What we’re doing is a comprehensive solution that’s about innovation, jobs and companies taking responsibility and leading the way.”