CONCORD, N.C. — Before hanging on a rack, your average ensemble arrives at the store wrapped in individual plastic bags packaged inside cardboard boxes. It ensures clothing stays clean and preserved. It also ensures that stores have pounds of flexible plastic packaging waste to deal with.
Most stores take the linear low and high density polyethylene and other film materials, shove them in garbage bags and throw them away. But a recycling program launched by Indianapolis-based real estate giant Simon Property Group Inc. is hoping to change that.
Concord Mills in Concord, N.C., is the latest Simon-owned outlet mall to start collecting and baling clear plastic packaging materials. The mall's "Plastic Room" has a hydraulic baler that compresses shrink wrap, garment bags and other plastic shipping materials into bales — each one equivalent to 160 pounds of plastic — that are collected for recycling.
Nearly 140 of the mall's 200 retailers are participating in the program and have collected nearly 2,000 pounds of clean plastic since September.
Plastic is a big portion of waste generated by the typical shopping mall, but it's a material nobody really knows how to deal with, said George Caraghiaur, senior vice president of sustainability for Simon. There are infrastructure issues both nationally — recycling programs and profitability vary across the U.S. — and in the mall itself, because malls, by nature, have limited space to store large amounts of plastic, he said.
"Plastic is a big nut for us to crack. It's something we need to deal with as a company," he said by phone. "We're looking for solutions — trying to be a bit creative and not leave any stone unturned. That's how we came up with the idea for the baling operation."
Three Simon-owned malls have a plastic baling program. A handful of other sites are compacting cardboard and plastics together in a mixed recycling operation.
The malls sell the baled material to regional businesses; Caraghiaur declined to name them.
The malls are testing various recycling models. In some locations shops bring their plastic waste to the baler, while in others, the waste is taken to a central collection location or picked up at the shop. Labor costs of the models vary. "The secret here is finding a solution that makes sense economically," he said.
The baling program is probably the first of its kind and there are still some hurdles. "It's a challenge. It's not easy, but we're up to the challenge and the results are very interesting," he said.
For example, the malls need to find enough buyers of the material for the program to make economic sense. And very few mall employees know the difference between HDPE, LLDPE and stretch film, but if you're selling that material as a feedstock, you need to know what it is, he said.
Transporting the material has also posed "an interesting challenge." Ideally, the trucks that deliver goods to the mall would take the plastic bales with them on the return trip and bring them to the recycler, he said.
Simon has worked with various firms and industry trade groups, including the American Chemistry Council, to identify potential buyers, evaluate the malls' plastic waste and figure out logistics.
"It's definitely a new process. … It's a tough issue to address, but we know we have to address it," he said. "Ultimately, we have to be creative and find partners that are atypical in the waste industry to find that solution."