Making lumber from recycled plastics is not a breakthrough idea.
But a new project at Firstar Fiber Corp. in Nebraska hopes to take a different track that will make its just-announced project much more economically viable.
It's an effort gaining some high-profile backing from the nonprofit Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
The approach is pretty simple, explained Steve Sikra, vice president and head of the Americas for the alliance.
Building an integrated operation to sort, process and recycle plastic films as well as manufacture new plastic lumber at one location will help drive out handling and transportation inefficiencies, he said.
"There's an economic benefit. There's an environmental benefit. The less transportation in any situation is going to be better for everybody. The closer to the source of the collection that we can put the material into a higher-value application, the better," Sikra said in an interview.
Financial details of an agreement between the alliance and Firstar are confidential, but the nonprofit group said it expects production could begin next year at the company's facility in Omaha.
Work will include new construction as well as use of existing space to create an integrated operation, Sikra said.
Tania Tan is a spokeswoman for the alliance and sees the Firstar project as just one way of helping to solve the plastic waste problem.
Both she and Sikra see this as "a" solution as opposed to "the" solution at a time when there needs to be many projects and ideas to find uses for plastics that present recycling challenges.
Integration of operations at one location at Firstar creates economic value, economic efficiencies and not just an end product, Tan explained.
"It's a way to create value and create use for plastic waste," she said. "I think, overall, what the process is trying to achieve is to valorize something that otherwise has been lower value and difficult to address," she said.
For this particular project, Tan said, lumber is "one way right now that we have to address this."
Building a successful model that turns recycled film into profitable plastic lumber will spur additional interest for other products once the concept is proven, Sikra said.
The hope is this: Once others see the success, they will start to show interest and create more demand for the material. This, ultimately, will drive interest in used films that currently do not hold much value in the market these days.
"If successful, the model could potentially be adopted in other recycling facilities across the U.S.," the alliance said in a statement.
Firstar handles about 100,000 tons of recycled materials each year, including plastics.
CEO Dale Gubbels sees the new project as a potential way to help overcome market obstacles currently standing in the way of profitably recycling certain plastics.
"The typical waste management system in the U.S. faces many barriers to recycling and reselling hard-to-recycle plastics because of the lack of end markets and the complex steps and partners involved in collecting, sorting, processing and remanufacturing these plastics," Gubbels said in a statement.
"With this project we have the opportunity to bring all of those elements together — literally under one roof — in order to find sustainable solutions and provide value to all plastics even those previously destined for the landfill or the environment," he said.
The new project aims to become an example of what could be replicated throughout the country.
"Local collection, local use is the best for all of us," Sikra said.
Key to the success of this project is Firstar's experience in handling hard-to-recycle plastics. The company has made hard-to-recycle plastics a focus and in the process created buy-in from local communities to divert this material from the waste stream.
Firstar's experience means the firm is just the kind of company that the alliance, which is supported by dozens of companies throughout the plastics supply chain, from resin makers to consumer products companies, seeks to engage.
"These are the ones we want to connect with and help grow. It's a major part of our strategy to collaborate with others and work with experienced partners who are committed to the long-term vision of circularity," Sikra said.