Plastics are just a small fraction of the recyclables collected and processed by Waste Management Inc., and film is just a small fraction of those plastics. But plastics, including film, have value, and the nation's largest solid waste management company wants to up its game in that market.
To help propel the Houston-based company in the film recycling arena, Waste Management recently took a controlling interest in Avangard Innovative's U.S. film recycling operations in Waller, Texas, near Houston, that were then renamed Natura PCR.
"If you look at plastics for WM, especially on the recycling side, it's only about 5 percent of the material we collect every day in our customers' bins. But it represents about 40 percent of the value, and it also represents nearly 100 percent of the conversations we have," said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management.
Waste Management finds itself in a relatively unique position to be able to impact the amount of film that gets diverted and recycled.
The company collects recyclables from millions of customers each week and operates about a hundred material recovery facilities around the country that sort those recyclables for further processing by other companies. Trucks of mixed recyclables come in from curbside collection, and bales of sorted material go out.
"Everywhere we go, we get asked about the supply that we have, and we're in a unique position," Bell said. "We're somewhat seen as the gatekeeper for this material."
But the question is, How does the company unlock the supply of used film, the vast majority of which ends up in landfills, for reprocessing?
Films have long been the scourge of MRFs, which have historically relied on equipment call screens at the beginning of the sortation process. This equipment, sometimes called disc or star screens, are actually horizontal spinning shafts that initially separate paper and cardboard from heavier recyclables such as metal, rigid plastics and even glass in some cases. Mounted onto the shafts are discs that allow paper to flow over while containers drop down between openings between the shafts.
It's an approach that's both effective for most of the recycling stream but also essentially thwarts collection and sortation of film through the typical MRF. That's because films tend to get caught up and wrap around the shafts, building up to a point where employees have to shut down the entire line and go in to manually cut out the film that's clogging up sortation.
Some MRFs also employ what is essentially a giant vacuum cleaner to siphon off lightweight films from the rest of the recyclables before they can cause problems on the sortation line.
The logistical challenges created by flexibles in an MRF system designed for rigid materials is why many municipalities forbid plastic film from their residential recycling programs.
After decades of essentially ignoring films, or at least simply trying to manage what films inadvertently come through the sortation line, MRFs are now looking to change their approach in an effort to capture more of this material.
That's why Waste Management is working with Dow Chemical on a residential recycling pilot project in Hickory Hills, Ill., to employ new techniques to allow curbside collection of films and then provide effective sortation from the rest of the recyclables.
With today's focus on plastics and their role in society, as well as their unwanted presence in the environment, there's never been more interest in recycling rates.
For plastic film, they are minuscule at about 2 percent. This compares with recycling rates of just under 30 percent for both PET and high-density polyethylene bottles. Even those higher numbers for rigid containers routinely get slammed by plastic critics, and industry insiders admit they have to do better.
Bell, meanwhile, said better managing plastic films on the commercial side also creates environmental stories that Waste Management customers seek.
Bringing Natura PCR into the Waste Management fold gives it the capacity and know-how.
Jon Stephens, CEO of Natura PCR, said having the financial muscle and recycling capacity of Waste Management behind his company is going to create change.
"We think it's going to have a huge impact on the business, on the industry. It's going to truly help us close the loop, create more circularity," Stephens said. "It's going to keep pushing the envelope in research and development to create better, more consistent products."
"It became clear that our customers wanted more than recycling; they wanted a circularity story," Bell said. "Part of the reason we were attracted to [Natura PCR] is they have a circularity story where we can take our customers' plastics, run it through [Stephens'] facility and then we can essentially work with those customers and get it back to their store shelves."
Chemical company Dow Inc. is involved in the Hickory Hills pilot project as its customers are increasingly looking at recycled solutions for its products.
"We have a common, shared interest. We believe that waste can be a resource, and ultimately we see that as a business opportunity for both of our companies," said Haley Lowry, global sustainability director for Dow.
"Film and flexible packaging in specific has less than 2 percent of a recycling rate in the U.S., and that means the material is going into landfill or into other places. And so I think that's a huge opportunity for us to figure out how do we unlock more of that material and build that back into the circular system," she said.
The Illinois project is ongoing, but the companies are already gaining valuable insight, Lowry said.
"We're in the middle of that pilot program right now, but I would say consumers of Hickory Hills have given great feedback so far. All of this is being done with the intent to scale. We need film and flexible collection, and we need to make it easy for consumers. And we don't want that material going to landfill; we see it has value," she said.