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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Comparative Case Study: Plastic Film Recycling at Two Simon Malls

At the November 17 Annual Elemental Impact (Ei) Annual Partner Meeting, Tonya Randell with Moore Recycling Associates announced the Comparative Case Study: Plastic Film Recycling at Two Simon Malls release. Prepared by Ei on behalf of W.R.A.P. - Wrap Recycling Action Program, the case study chronicles the Charlotte plastic film recycling programs pioneered within the Sustainable Food Court Initiative (SFCI) - Shopping Mall Pilot

Initiated by members of the American Chemistry Council's Flexible Film Recycling Group in partnership with GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition and The Association of Plastic Recyclers, W.R.A.P.'s purpose is to reinvigorate plastic film recycling. The goal is to double recycling to 2 billion tons by 2020.

In 2011 Ei Industry Experts & Pioneers embarked on a commercial plastic film recycling journey targeted at moderate generators where standard-sized bale assembly was not practical. Development of a city-wide plastic film recycling template was the intended destination. 

In the 2010 | 2011 time frame, plastic film generated at shopping malls skyrocketed due to shifts in garment packaging. Previously, garments were bulk packaged for retail sales. With significant increases in internet sales, manufacturers shifted to individual, clear plastic film garment packaging for shipping.

Doug Stoner, Louis & Matt at
first plastic film recycling meeting
With the introduction of commercial single-stream recycling - paper fibers, metals and other recyclable materials mixed together for the collection vehicle - the higher plastic film volume increased a mall's waste hauling expenses. Single-stream recycling is delivered to a MRF (materials recovery facility) where the material is separated via an integrated system of conveyor belts, optical sorting, blowers, and hand separation. Since it wraps around the sorting equipment, plastic film is considered a contaminant in single-stream recycling.

Yet plastic film is a valuable commodity when collected separately and baled for sale. Historically, plastic film rebates exceed OCC (old corrugated cardboard) by three to five times on a per pound basis. Thus, there is a strong business case for separated plastic film recycling at malls: film rebates and reduced landfill hauling | tipping charges more than offset program costs.

A strong Ei Team came together to create a shopping mall plastic film recycling program template. Ei Partner Louis Herrera of Novolex (then Hilex Poly) was the visionary who devised the overall plan. As a major plastic bag manufacturer, Novolex was eager to purchase the film as post-consumer recycled content for their bag production.

Ray is all smiles with his
Orwak baler
The mall plastic film recycling model centered around on-site baling. Ei Partner Mark Lanning of Orwak shared his expertise on setting up on-site baling systems. A baler manufacturer, Orwak offers a mini baler perfect for a small recycling center located in a mall's back-of-the-house.

Ei Industry Pioneer Simon Malls was eager to recycle the abundant film generated by their tenants. In addition to cost-savings incentives, major national tenants were pressuring Simon to recycle their plastic film. Then Simon Director of Waste & Recycling Matt Hupp worked closely with the Ei Team on program development.

A Charlotte Simon Mall, Concord Mills (CM) - the SFCI Shopping Center Pilot - was selected as the first mall plastic film recycling pilot. In addition to excellent mall logistics, CM General Manager Ray Soporowski was an industry veteran committed to sustainability and "doing the right thing." The stage was set!

First on the agenda was a visit to Simon's hometown Indianapolis for a tour | education of a typical Simon Mall. The following day Hilex Poly (now Novolex) hosted a tour of their plastic film recycling plant a couple hours south in North Vernon, IN.

The Ei Team @ Concord Mills
On the second tour, Matt, Louis and Ei Founder Holly Elmore traveled to Charlotte. The trio met with CM & SouthPark Mall management to assess the current plastic film status. SouthPark is a sister Simon Mall located within Mecklenburg County. During the second tour, Mecklenburg County Government joined forces with the Ei Team and provided a local support network.

In August 2012 the CM plastic film recycling pilot launched with ease, grace & celebration. The following month SouthPark launched their plastic film recycling program.

For the case study ROI (return on investment) analysis, CM and SouthPark 2015 calendar year program stats were used. At the Annual Ei Partner Meeting, Tonya brought several hard copies of the case study published three days earlier.

Ei's pioneering role in commercial plastic film recycling is documented on the Plastic Film Recycling website page. The Ei FB album, Source-Separated Materials Recycling: building a city-wide network, is a pictorial recap of the work-in-progress. Note the Plastic Film Recycling Template expanded to the Source-Separated Material Recycling Template.

Plastic film ready for the baler
The IMPACT Blog article, Ei 2016: Year of Recognition, chronicles the powerful 2016 Annual Ei Meeting and features Tonya's presentation on the case study and beyond.

With the Comparative Case Study: Plastic Film Recycling at Two Simon Malls release, the Ei Team is ready to reconvene with W.R.A.P. and continue the profound work started with Simon Malls. The platform is built, the stage is set, and Ei is anxious to continue pioneering commercial plastic film recycling programs.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Recycling or Contamination Crisis? an article series

Over the past year numerous mainstream media articles presented a national recycling crisis. In John Tierney's October 2015 New York Times article The Reign of Recycling, Waste Management (WM) CEO David Steiner is quoted, "If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront."

Ei Chair Scott Seydel in front of a
MRF single-stream recycling delivery
Yet the crisis seems to revolve around WM's profitability within single-stream recycling systems. According to the September 2015 Fortune article The American recycling business is a mess: Can Big Waste fix it?, single-stream recycling is a sorting method WM pioneered in 2001. Under WM and other large waste hauler influence, single-stream recycling evolved into the only available option for curbside and corporate recycling programs in many municipalities.

In single-stream recycling, common recyclable materials - fiber (cardboard, paper), plastics, metals and glass - are placed in a single bin for later sorting at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Once sorted by type, material is baled for sale within the commodity market. Beginning around 2009 the big waste haulers started switching over to single-stream recycling as their offered service.

Unfortunately, contamination was rampant in single-stream recycling systems from its introduction. Contamination generally falls into three categories: 1> non-recyclable items 2> food & melted ice and 3> glass. 

In the beginning, many of the non-recyclable items in single-stream collection were due to lack of clear signage and consumer confusion. For example, bin signage may read "Plastics," rather than the specific accepted plastics. Thus, consumers include ALL plastics - lawn chairs, hoses etc. - in the single-stream bin.

Food waste on recyclable foodservice packaging is contamination. In addition to rendering the packaging unfit for recycling, the food waste may contaminate nearby material. Water (melted ice from fountain soft drinks and other beverages) causes paper to stick to plastics; the paper and plastic are impractical to separate in MRF sorting systems. Therefore, the plastic, along with the paper stuck to it, are deposited in the landfill-destined trash pile.

MRF separated glass - filled with
plastic & paper contamination
Most single-stream recycling is collected in packer trucks where the material is crushed for transportation. When crushed, glass breaks into small shards that contaminate the paper, plastics and metals in the load. Additionally, glass (essentially sand) causes significant wear and tear on hauling trucks and MRF sorting equipment.

In December 2009 the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) issued the comprehensive Understanding economic and environmental impacts of single-stream collection systems white paper. Within the paper, research findings forewarned of single-stream perils: single-stream recycling increases diversion from landfill rates yet decreases recycling rates due to contamination.

The U.S. EPA Sustainable Materials Management Web Academy presented the webinar, Single-Stream Recycling: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, in July 2011. Within the webinar, the presenters address the effectiveness of a system designed for ease of collection. The ZWA Blog article, Single-Stream Recycling: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, gives a synopsis of the informative webinar.

If contamination was rampant since launching, how did the waste haulers make the necessary profits to drive single-stream recycling to the predominant, often only, recycling option available for communities and corporations at-large?

2015 McCormick Place recycling bin
w/ clear signage, next to waste bin.
The answer is within commodity market pricing. As the recycling commodity markets regained strength from the 2008 pricing plummets, MRFs made profits even with significant contamination. Markets for contaminated material remained reasonably stable with China purchasing the strong majority of the "dirty material."

Large waste haulers often invested in their own MRFs to complement landfill investments. Thus, the hauler collected tipping fees from landfill-bound, contaminated MRF material.


A robust commodity market through mid-2014 masked the contamination flaws within single-stream recycling systems.

Beginning in mid-2014, recycling commodity market pricing started a downward spiral. At the same time China cut U.S. purchases significantly and demanded cleaner material. Contaminated material prices severely declined and in some instances the market disintegrated. Suddenly, contaminated material was perceived as an expensive program cost versus a system by-product. 

For larger generators, on-site source separation is best materials management practices and improves the bottom line. As noted in the ZWA Blog article, Zero waste moves from "best" to standard operating practices, the Piazza Produce source-separated material recycling program generated $288,000 of cost-savings in 2015; the program continued to improve the bottom line during soft recycling markets.

Separated material at the
S-SMRT Pilot
As a raw material in manufacturing operations, clean recyclable material retains value. When there are strong local markets, larger generators often circumvent the commodities market and sell directly to the manufacturer. The Elemental Impact (Ei) Source-Separated Materials Recycling Template (S-SRT) is grounded in clean material source-separation and direct, local sales to manufacturers. Committed to integrity, the S-SRT tagline is Contamination is a Mistake!

Thus, the recycling crisis touted by David Steiner in mainstream media is a contamination crisis.

As the first in a series, this article's purpose is to establish the contamination crisis scenario. Following articles will address available solutions to overhaul corporate recycling programs, whether at an individual location or for the municipality, into systems that make good business, community and environmental sense.

In general, the articles will address corporate recycling with little to no focus on curbside recycling. Intended topics include:
  • Waste Prevention - working with the supply chain on transport packaging to eliminate trash packaging; ensuring no waste is created when products are sold to customers.
  • WE Consciousness | Culture - ensuring organization employees work in unison toward common goals within a supportive corporate culture; includes working in partnership with the supply chain and customers.
    clear communication at
    an employee bulletin board
  • Hauler | Generator Responsibility - taking responsibility for contamination within a recycling stream; using WE Consciousness, the hauler & customer work together to craft recycling programs that generate clean streams; culture plays a critical role.
  • Clear Communication - educating employers and guests on proper placement for material and trash; includes clear, effective signage & best bin practices.
  • Local Infrastructure - working with grass roots recycling companies on flexible programs unique to the local end markets; may attract new manufacturers to the local market if a significant volume of their raw material is generated within the community.
With a positive flavor, the articles will focus on success stories and how to engineer profitable recycling systems.

It is time for the corporate community to exercise their power of consumer demand when it comes to materials management and resource recovery. Once industry leaders break the single-stream cycle, the big haulers will follow with crafting an alternative, effective system. Simple Economics 101 may prove the best pathway to fixing a broken recycling system riddled with contamination.