Nashville, Tenn. — S.C. Johnson & Co. Inc. is not typically in the garbage bag business, but the company is making garbage bags to prove that so-called dirty film can be successfully transformed into new products.
Plastics recycling, in general, faces vexing issues. And near the top of the list is how to recycle more plastic film.
S.C. Johnson, as maker of Ziploc brand of plastic bags, knows all too well the challenges.
With just 0.2 percent of all Ziploc brand bags being recycled, the Racine, Wis.-based company is working to create change for its products as well as other post-consumer film.
“We believe there is a lot more to be done,” said Pamela Oksiuta, senior director of global sustainability at S.C. Johnson. “We need to find solutions. We need to keep it out of the landfill. We need to work together to really find a solution.”
“We'd like to see a much higher rate of return for Ziploc bags as well as some of the other materials. So it's not enough,” she said.
S.C. Johnson has spent the last year working on a project that Oksiuta said proves that post-consumer film processed by a materials recovery facility can be successfully transformed into new products. And in this case, it's garbage bags.
The low rate of Ziploc bag recycling prompted the company to seek change and prove it can be done.
“We have done a lot of research, spent a lot of time with folks in the industry. We've learned a lot. We understand the issues that recyclers face,” Oksiuta said at the Plastics Recycling 2018 conference in Nashville.
“So here's what we've learned: We do know that plastic film can be sent through the recycling facilities (MRFs). It can be recovered,” she said.
“We also know that used film, one of the biggest complaints is that the film you collect at the curb is dirty. We also know that there is a solution for that,” she said. “Dirty film can be used. That's not a reason to not have curbside film. It happens in Europe today. They do process dirty film they collect at the curb and they can process it into other products.”
S.C. Johnson used equipment from Herbold to wash the recycled film and equipment from Erema pelletized the material.
“We took film from a MRF out of the U.S. We had it washed. We had it flaked. We had it pelletized and we had it extruded into plastic bags,” she said.
“We believe there is an opportunity here for us. This isn't about selling plastic bags. This isn't about selling garbage bags for us,” Oksiuta said.
“We wanted to show that there is an end market. We wanted to show that there is an opportunity for curbside film to go into something else and be a sustainable business,” she said.
Film can create big headaches for MRF operators because it can get tangled in sorting equipment, causing operators to shut down lines that are designed to run continuously.
“Sometimes it's perceived as being inefficient and unprofitable for the MRF operator. But we also know that there's a sizeable end market,” Oksiuta said. “We see that there is a potential opportunity for a feasible business model.”
S.C. Johnson went to Europe to find a manufacturer who would handle the post-consumer material.
The goal is to eventually find domestic markets that involve a variety of end products, including items such as pallets, garbage cans and decking that would consumer greater amounts of MRF film.
Materials Recovery for the Future, a research effort to find better ways to capture film from MRFs, also has been working for the past few years to create a pathway for more success.
“For us, it's a proof of concept. I don't think we intend to be garbage bag manufacturers forever. It was to try to address a question to us, which was there is no end market,” the sustainability official said.
S.C. Johnson's work to recapture used film centers on post-consumer film that comes out of MRFs.
A separate collection effort already targets post-consumer film through thousands of drop off locations at stores around the country.
These drop-off efforts are promoted by the Flexible Film Recycling Group of the American Chemistry Council and its Wrap Recycling Action Program that works to keep the film clean and away from MRFs and landfills.
S.C. Johnson's target is other film that ends up in MRFs that becomes more challenging to recycle due to contamination. The goal also is to capture more film that simply gets thrown away.
Because some MRFs are equipped to handle plastic film while others are not, some residents can add film to their curbside recycling carts while others are told not do that by their haulers.
Oksiuta said the store take-back program is “a great solution.”
“We love that program,” she said, but added she believed most consumers will not take advantage of the opportunity.
“The next step for us is to continue to show end-of-life solutions, to create a demand,” Oksiuta said. “We see this as a 10-year journey. We see this as 10 years, at least. Hopefully before that. But, in our minds, we're not going to do this for three years and be done.”