Privately owned Dart Container Corp., which makes single-use food-service products, is adding a wash-and-dry line at its plant in Corona, Calif., to recycle dirty post-consumer polystyrene foam.
The wash-and-dry line will have capacity to handle 250,000 pounds of dirty material a month and will include a grinder, washing tumblers, a drying unit and a densifier, said Michael Westerfield, Dart's corporate director for recycling programs. It will begin operating this fall.
The Corona plant, which opened a drop-off center for PS foam a year ago, recycles 20,000 pounds of it a month, including 1 million relatively clean PS food-service trays from a distributor that delivers and recycles food trays from Southern California schools. Dart does not manufacture that product.
We want to expand take-back programs with food-service operators through our distributors, Westerfield said by phone from his Redlands, Calif., office. But due to the food contamination, we need to be able to clean the material. This new equipment will enable us to recycle 100 percent of the lunch trays we receive. This is just for the dirty material.
Manufacturers of PS food-service products have been under pressure the past four years to recycle them, particularly in California where 36 cities and three counties nearly all of them adjacent to bays or the ocean have banned takeout PS containers in markets that represent less than 10 percent of the state's population. The latest: the city of Fremont passed a ban May 11 that goes into effect Jan. 1.
With the exception of Dart, everyone else has just started walking away from PS as the package of choice in these markets, a PS industry executive said. Those firms are multimaterial producers, while Dart's major resins are PS and polypropylene, he said.
Mason, Mich.-based Dart, which has estimated sales of $1.4 billion and is the largest global producer of PS foam cups in the U.S., plans to install the equipment in August and be operating it by fall, Westerfield said. Critically, we will be able to use 'blow-off' water from our boilers to clean the trays. This minimizes the environmental impact, he said.
The wash-and-dry line is one of a series of initiatives Dart has taken since 2007 to help develop a PS recycling infrastructure, even though it can't use that foam in its products recycled PS foam is not approved for food contact.
Dart now has drop-off centers at all of its 13 U.S. plants after adding three this year, five in 2009 and two in 2008. The firm will add a 14th center June 16, at its Mexico City site. It also has expanded nationwide a Florida pilot program begun last March to help restaurants recycle PS foam cups, and it is working to boost the number of U.S. cities with curbside PS collection.
Dart has released only a few location-specific numbers on the volume of PS foam it recycles, most of it packaging. For example, the volume collected at its Mason drop-off site has increased from just over 200,000 pounds in 2007 to 500,000 in 2009. The firm has not released overall volume, though its collection centers can handle more than 12 million pounds a year.
The actual volume collected right now isn't as important to Dart as the message our efforts is trying to send that foam packaging can be recycled, Westerfield said. We just want to be part of the process to help create a recycling infrastructure.
Since Dart can't reuse the material it recycles, the company compacts and sells it to partners, mostly U.S. manufacturers of products such as picture frames, rulers, CD cases and hangers.
We try to keep the material in the United States to create jobs here. All of the material from the locations we have set up in the last three years is staying in the United States. For recycling to make it, it has to be a domestic effort, he said.
Two of Dart's partners are Timbron International Inc., a Stockton, Calif., maker of interior moldings from recycled resin; and Nepco Industrial Co. Ltd. of Paju, South Korea, which uses 350,000 pounds of recycled PS a month to make high-end, ornate picture frames at a plant in Chino, Calif.
Our collection centers are satisfying a big demand, Westerfield said. People are more aware now that they can recycle PS foam. Five years ago, we would get one to two phone calls a month about recycling foam. Now we are getting calls every day. Part of it is the green movements and part of it is that we have raised our profile and that is educating the public that foam is recyclable.
In general, there is more interest in recycling all products, not just foam, he said.
Dart began recycling PS school lunch trays in Corona at the urging of a distributor that sells lunch trays to roughly 80 percent of Southern California's schools and then collects them for recycling.
Dart also has recycled lunch trays from Westwood Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., since teacher Laura Rodriguez approached it about starting a recycling program as a project for her fourth-grade class. The school now recycles more than 90 percent of its lunch trays and Dart features a video about the program on its website.
Dart plans to share the video with other schools because more than 90 percent of what we get from the Westwood program is very clean, Westerfield said.
Dart's program for restaurants went nationwide in November after an eight-month trial in Florida. More than 200 restaurants participate by purchasing plastic-lined, corrugated collection bins/shipping containers called Recycla-Paks. The packs measure 11 by 20 by 30 inches and hold between 10-12 pounds of cups. When the bins are full, restaurants can ship them to Dart, prepaid.
Beyond those initiatives, Dart also is working to grow curbside collection of PS foam, largely in California, where 35 cities now collect it. The objective is to demonstrate that it can be recycled, as PS packaging has been the target of bans from coastal communities, Westerfield said.
We are concentrating on getting curbside programs going in the U.S., he said. We are working to get municipalities, waste haulers and material recovery facilities on the same page.
The deterrent to PS recycling isn't the typical $40,000 an MRF must spend to buy a densifier and other compacting equipment, he said. Rather it's the added labor costs and whether there will be enough material to recycle.
You need a lot more material to make a pound of foam than you need to make a pound of cardboard, he said. MRFs are concerned that they are not going to get enough to make it worthwhile, about where they can store it until they have enough for a truckload and the labor costs for one of their workers to do the densification, even part time. We are concentrating on California to prove it can be done.
Although compostable food-service products have been advocated as an alternative to PS, such containers are available in only five California cities, he said. But curbside PS foam collection is much further along.
Despite California bans on PS food-service packaging in 36 cities and in unincorporated areas of three counties, Westerfield believes interest in bans is slowing down.
Mike Levy, director of the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., agreed. The momentum of bans on PS foam food service has slowed vs. past years, he said. Many communities are now looking for programs and solutions involving plastic food service rather than pursuing a ban-first approach.
One reason for that is recycling pilots have started to prove their effectiveness, and PS foam recycling is now available in communities in California that represent 20 percent of the population of the state, Levy said.
Also, Westerfield said state bills are becoming more material-neutral because legislators are seeing the unintended consequences of product bans. A case in point: A Seattle ban on takeout PS food-service packaging that goes into effect July 1 has made exemptions for PS drinking straws and cutlery because of a lack of alternatives.
More and more legislators are looking to everything for solutions not just at one product, he said.
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