Energy Bag program fuels new path for hard-to-recycle plastics

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Dow Chemical Co. The Hefty Energy Bag program is collecting 550 to 650 bags of hard-to-recycle plastics each week in the Omaha, Neb., area.

Organizers behind a program to capture difficult-to-recycle plastics expect the work now being done in the Heartland eventually will spread throughout the country.

The Hefty Energy Bag program, launched last fall in the Omaha, Neb., area, already has increased local participation. And plans are to eventually expand the program around the country, said Han Zhang, sustainability and advocacy manager at the packaging & specialty plastics unit of Dow Chemical Co.

The program is collecting about 550 to 650 Energy Bags each week, and has collected 6,300 bags so far, Zhang recently said.

Much of the plastics being collected do not weigh much — think chip bags, candy bar wrappers and juice pouches, for example — so the total weight collected was at 6,300 pounds when he spoke.

Some 6,000 customers of Recyclebank, a recycling rewards program in the Omaha area, initially joined the program last fall. Another 2,500 homes in five neighborhoods in the city have since been added, Zhang said.

“The program is running very well and we’re also expanding the program,” he said. “The program itself, we started to receive good-quality material. We have conducted three audits. We see very little contamination in those Energy Bags, and most of the items collected are exactly what we want put in those Energy Bags,” he said.

Consumers put their hard-to-recycle plastics into special orange colored bags made by Hefty before placing them in their recycling containers. Those bags are segregated after collection and diverted away from more traditional recyclables such as PET and high density polyethylene containers.

The program targets a variety of plastics not typically recycled, including flexible packaging, meat and cheese packaging, expanded polystyrene food packaging and cups, other plastic cups, plates and cutlery, cereal and cake mix liners, straws and stirrers, for example.

Materials currently collected in the Omaha area are sent to a cement kiln to provide alternative fuel, keeping the material out of landfills or the environment.

While the Omaha effort is a long-term initiative, a previous pilot program in Citrus Heights, Calif., diverted its Energy Bag materials to Agilyx Corp. in Oregon, where it was made into oil through pyrolysis.

Zhang said the location and economics will help determine the best use of the captured plastics once the program expands into other markets.

“We are not limiting ourselves to one single application. We will continue to innovate and collaborate with others to find the best solutions to keep those non-recycled plastic out of landfills and also keep the resources at their highest values throughout their lifecycles,” he said.

While most of the plastics from the Omaha area is used to help fuel cement production, the program also submitted a portion of the stream for testing by pyrolysis, which uses heat in an absence of oxygen to break down organic material. Zhang said the results are good.

“It really depends on the infrastructure around the city,” he said. Finding a local solution will help sustain the program. “If it is a very long distance, it probably doesn’t make a lot of economic sense or environmental sense to send Energy Bag material over a long distance.”

Lamy Chopin, global development leader for packaging & specialty plastics at Dow, sees a bright future for pyrolysis over time.

“In the long term, I think pyrolysis technology, with the scalability it offers, is going to be the most effective route,” he said. “For the skeptics out there that don’t think it’s feasible, I would say it’s definitely doable.”

While Dow and its fellow Energy Bag partners see the potential to expand the program elsewhere, they also realize they need more help, Zhang said. That’s why work is under way to create a template that can be used by other organizations and companies who want to get involved elsewhere.

“We definitely want to make this program available across the United States. We receive a lot of interest from individuals, cities and other businesses,” he said.

Along with expanding to include additional households, there also is a company aspect to the program. ConAgra Foods, a program sponsor, has adopted the Energy Bag program for its campus in Omaha.

Other companies see the potential as well. Using the Hefty Energy Bag can help companies reach their zero waste goals, Zhang said.

“They see this as a great way to reduce their waste and engage employees. So we definitely have a goal. We want to expand the program to additional cities using an implementation pattern that can be replicated broadly. As a company, we have limited capability to implement this program using our own staff. So we are seeking other companies and other organizations to lead the implementation of the program in new cities, building upon the foundation of experience in Omaha and Citrus Heights,” he said.

“Our long-term interest is to continue to serve as a catalyst and to champion the establishment of Energy Bag programs that will be able to operate in a sustainable fashion independently,” Zhang said.

“It is our vision that all plastic will have a proper end of cycle and there’s no plastic packaging ending up in the natural environment,” he said.

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