Orlando, Fla. – Hefty Energy Bag, a program to capture hard-to-recycle plastics, is gaining momentum in Nebraska, and organizers have big plans to expand the effort across the nation.
Dow Chemical Co., along with fellow project sponsors, are out with a goal to create 50 separate programs throughout the country in the next five years.
Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for packaging and specialty plastics at Dow, said the goal is "really more a visionary assessment" of the program's expansion in the upcoming years as opposed to a specific target.
"We asked ourselves how can we scale this rapidly? How can we make a large enough number of programs that we're having a significant impact in terms of the amount of material we collect and divert from the landfill? How can we build enough volume to create these alternative end uses for the material?" he said in an interview at the Re|focus Sustainability & Recycling Summit in Orlando.
Hefty Energy Bag targets plastics that would typically otherwise end up in the waste stream such as flexible food packaging and mixed plastics. Really any plastic that is not already collected through a typical recycling program can go into the orange bag that segregates that material from the rest of the recyclables and trash.
A Hefty Energy Bag program has been under way in the Omaha, Neb., area for months, starting in the suburbs and steadily growing. This permanent program followed a previous pilot effort in Citrus Heights, Calif., that essentially helped prove the idea was feasible.
With momentum building in the Omaha area, program backers currently are speaking with other cities about expanding beyond Nebraska. "We've got several cities that we're in discussions with right now about being among the next cities," Wooster said.
To help bolster interest in the program, Dow and Keep America Beautiful announced July 11 the availability of two $50,000 grants to help create programs in other locations.
Municipalities, non-profit groups, material recovery facilities, and "other qualifying organizations" can seek funding through Sept. 1, organizers said. More information is available at www.kab.org/hefty-energy-bag-program.
"The Hefty Energy Bag program provides a convenient way to collect plastic materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill and offers a platform to promote positive behaviors to prevent this material from being wasted," said Brenda Pulley, senior vice president of recycling for Keep America Beautiful, in a statement
Participation in the Omaha area has steady grown. Wooster said at Re|focus about 13,000 filled Hefty Energy Bags have been collected and sorted since the program's launch in October. That's resulted in more than 13,000 pounds of plastics going for use as fuel in a cement kiln instead of going to a landfill. About 8,500 homes now participate in the voluntary program, mostly in the suburbs.
Fuel is a good way to use the collected plastics as momentum builds in a program, Wooster said. But there are options beyond cement kilns, pyrolysis or traditional waste-to-energy plants once collection efforts reach a certain level.
"One thing that we're finding since we announced the program is there's a lot of interest from people in getting the material that we're making," he said.
"These are materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill, and so taking them and making them into a product, almost regardless of what that product is, is a better use for the material. So we want to help foster that innovation," Wooster said.
"One thing that we think is really important is to have enough critical scale to justify that capital investment you need to build a manufacturing plant that makes a product [from recycled plastics]," he said.
Companies need to be assured of consistent quantity and quality before launching a recycled-based business. "We can really build up that volume in our efforts to create a large enough supply," he said, by using energy recovery options initially.
"We want to have a diverse set of sales outlets for the material we collect to make sure we get maximum value for the material," Wooster said.
Program organizers realize they will not be able to provide hands-on help to every program as more and more efforts come online over time. That's why they are currently creating a toolkit to help cities and interested organizations launch their own programs.
Program organizers, Wooster said, are working to keep the cost of the program minimal.
"Our goal is to have this service available for $6 per year per household., so 50 cents per month," he said. "We have to keep the cost down. We think 50 cents a month is an incremental cost on top of your [other] recycling. We think 50 cents is an additional reasonable cost to pay for that."
Wooster also stressed the importance of people understanding the Hefty Energy Bag does not replace other plastic recycling efforts.
"We don't want to give people the idea that the other recycling is going away or that the other recycling programs are not important," he said. "We support those. But we want to give people the ability to put as many of their plastic items as they possibly can into their cart. The Energy Bag will greatly expand what they can put in their cart."
In the Omaha area, Dow is working with: Recyclebank, a company that provides rewards for recycling; First Star Recycling, a MRF operator; Conagra Brands Inc., a food company; Systech Environmental Corp., an alternative fuel provider for cement kilns; and Reynolds Consumer Products Inc., the maker of Hefty brand bags.