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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Plastic-Film Recycling: A New Frontier

A common Ei phrase is: "Ei determines what could be done that is not being done and gets it done." Embarking on a metro-wide plastic film recycling template pilot epitomizes the phrase. 

For most corporate entities, single-stream recycling is the only recycling option available for materials and by-products generated during operations. Although a valuable commodity, plastic film is a contaminant in single-stream recycling. The film wraps around machinery, often causing costly sorting delays.

Large plastic film generators compact the material into standard bales weighing 750 pounds to 1,000 pounds. For Piazza Produce, plastic film rebates rival corrugated cardboard as the top revenue producing material at their zero waste facility in Indianapolis. To learn about Piazza Produce's impressive zero waste program created by facility manager Scott Lutocka read the ZWA Blog articles, Zero Waste is a Team Sport and Source Separation Key to Maximum Recycling Profits.

Plastic film recycling among moderate generators is a frontier where infrastructure must be developed, within the company and the community. Many moderate generators use a sixty inch downstroke baler for their corrugated cardboard baling. When using the large baler for plastic film, the company must accumulate 750 plus pounds of plastic film for one bale. The logistics and space requirements to aggregate the film is not practical for most smaller producers.

Ei Team poses in front of a
GWCC plastic film filled container
The Georgia World Congress Center Authority, consisting of the Ga Dome (home to the Atlanta Falcons), Olympic Centennial Park (20 acre park commemorating the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics) and the Ga World Congress Center (fourth largest convention center in the nation), is a moderate plastic film generator. 

Several years ago GWCCA director of sustainability Tim Trefzer experimented with baling plastic film generated at the complex. After one large bale, Tim understood the benefits did not justify the required logistics.

Small balers play a vital role in aggregating plastic film for collection where moderate amounts are generated. Depending on the type of plastic, small balers produce easy-to-manage 100 to 200 pound bales. 

milk jugs in baler
@ ATL Airport
Elemental Impact first began working with Orwak small balers when Ei Partner HMSHost embarked on a milk jug recycling program at their Atlanta Airport Starbucks locations. On average the milk jug bales weigh 60+ pounds. HMSHost found the rebates from selling used milk jugs in the commodity market offset the baler and labor cost inherent within the program. The ZWA Blog post, Milk Jugs Recycled at Atlanta Airport, is an overview of the successful program launch.  Note the Atlanta Airport is the Sustainable Food Court Initiative Airport Pilot.

Next on the agenda was tackling plastic film recycling via internal company programs using on-site small balers. In 2011 Simon Property Group - the nation's largest mall and commercial real estate owner - joined the Ei Partner Program to develop zero waste practices at their malls, with a focus on plastic film and food wasteSynchronistic with Ei and Simon joining forces, the garment industry shifted from bulk retail packaging to individual packages in clear plastic film. RESULT: increased landfill tipping fees from the tremendous increase in tenant-produced plastic film.

In August 2012 Concord Mills, the SFCI Mall Pilot, launched their successful plastic film recycling program using an Orwak mini baler. The film rebates, coupled with reduced landfill tipping fees, cover the baler and labor cost and improve the bottom line. The ZWA Blog post, ACTION: Theme for SFCI Shopping Mall Pilot, announces the mall plastic film recycling program.

bagged plastic film ready for
baling @ Concord Mills
With single-location plastic film recycling success, Ei embarked on creating a city-wide plastic film recycling template pilot. Using lessons learned from the Zero Waste Zones 2009 launch, Ei understood how to develop a moderate generator network that results in route density and sufficient film quantity to sell material by the tractor trailer load. Thus, pilot pioneers share in the higher market value for volume sales. The small baler is a necessary template component.

In simple terms, the city-wide game plan is to recruit 10 - 12 industry pioneers who generate a moderate amount of plastic film in their operations. Using a small baler, the pioneers collect and bale plastic film on-site for periodic collection. A local hauler collects and delivers the small bales to a warehouse. The small bales are re-baled into standard size larger bales and stored in an empty tractor trailer. Once full, the plastic film is sold by the tractor trailer load as a raw material to a plastic bag manufacturer. Atlanta serves as the pilot city for the plastic film recycling template.

The ZWA Blog post, If it was easy, it would already be done, announces the city-wide template along with listing the inherent challenges within the groundbreaking program.

First meeting @ FreshPoint
introducing the pilot
Pilot pioneers are critical pilot team members. Working closely with the Ei Partners, the pioneers develop the internal systems necessary to collect the plastic film produced at their facility. Creative solutions to the operational and other challenges are integral to template development. Top management buy-in as well as employee engagement are required ingredients for success.

FreshPoint of Atlanta is the template founding pioneer. Owned by Sysco, FreshPoint is the nation's largest produce distributor with a strong sustainability commitment. As an early ZWZ Participant, FreshPoint has strong sustainability practices in-place and is eager to forge new recycling frontiers. 

Delivery of the Orwak baler
for the trial period
Ei Partner Orwak offered a complimentary small baler during the pilot trial period. On October 15 the baler was delivered to FreshPoint's Atlanta distribution center. The Ei Team was on-site to unveil the baler, survey plastic film collected and assist with making the first bale.  

While going through the collected plastic film, the team realized there was a significant amount of colored film that required a separate bale to maintain maximum material value.  A fun surprise was the disposable plastic aprons used in FreshPoint's produce cut shop were recyclable in the colored bales.

Shrink wrap securing produce boxes on pallets for customer delivery is one of FreshPoint's largest plastic film types generated. Prior to the pilot, the delivery labels were placed on the pallet after secured in shrink wrap. The labels are contamination for plastic film recycling. New procedures call for placing labels on the boxes prior to securing them with the shrink wrap. A simple procedure shift eliminated contamination.

Stuart Herman w/ Orwak
removing first plastic film bale
In the beginning the FreshPoint bales weighed roughly 60 pounds, less than half of the anticipated 150 - 200 pound bale. At Concord Mills, the bales average 175 pounds. Working with the FreshPoint associates on baling techniques, the bales now average 100 pounds. The remaining weight difference is due to the type of films generated at a mall versus a distribution center. Producing highly compacted bales is essential to maximizing the rebate revenue.

For the template pilot, Ei intends to invite 10-12 pioneers to join the plastic film recycling team. The GWCCA, Georgia Institute of Technology and the Atlanta Airport were invited and are exploring the feasibility of invitation acceptance. On November 6, Tim Trefzer with the GWCC and Liza Milagro, Atlanta Airport senior sustainability planner, visited FreshPoint's distribution center to understand the ease of collecting and baling plastic film in an industrial setting. In late December Ei founder Holly Elmore and Lorraine White of M-Pass met with Cindy Jackson, GA Tech waste & recycling director, and her team to introduce the plastic film recycling template pilot.

In addition to inviting pioneers, a next pilot step is to identify a recycling center location where the mini bales are re-baled into standard sized bales and stored in a tractor trailer until sold. In December Holly and Lorraine met at the U.S. Penitentiary - Atlanta with the local UNICOR folks to determine if synergies aligned to provide the recycling center facility and labor. As a second step in the evaluation process, Holly met with federal UNICOR associates in Washington D.C. later in the month.

Lorraine White with local
UNICOR folks @ ATL Penitentiary
UNICOR is the federal prison system employment arm. The ZWA blog article, Prisons: Valuable Resource for Recycling Refinement Systems?!, introduces the potential synergies for partnering with prison systems, along with outlining Ei's relationship with UNICOR and TRICOR, the Tennessee prison system employment arm.

Determining the types of plastic film produced among the various generators in a metro area is another action point within the template development. The goal is to invite a broad cross section of generators - distribution centers, hotels, airport, event | convention facilities, malls - to understand first-hand the types and quantities of plastic film produced in an urban district. Working with Ei Partner Hilex Polyan industry leading manufacturer of plastic bag and film products, the pilot team will balance the labor required to separate plastic film type versus the material value. The intent is for Hilex Poly to purchase the plastic film by the tractor trailer load as a raw material for their manufacturing process.

Documentation is integral in template development, especially when the long-term intentions are to duplicate the program across the nation and expand source-separated material collection beyond plastic film to the components in single-stream recycling. The Ei FB album, Plastic Film Recycling: building a city-wide network, published as a comprehensive pictorial recap of the action to date in the city-wide plastic film recycling template pilot. The album is structured so it will accumulate the pictorial story as the template is built.

Ei Chair Scott Seydel
filming Preston Fletcher w/ FP
In late November the Ei film crew visited FreshPoint's distribution center for a morning of taping the plastic film recycling procedures in action. Timed with the Annual Ei Partner Meeting, executives from FreshPoint, Hilex Poly, Orwak, M-Pass and the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council joined the film crew for interviews on their role in creating a city-wide plastic film recycling template grounded in solid business sense. The EiPlastic Film Recovery Pilot @ FreshPoint video is the first version edited from FreshPoint's perspective.

ACTION is underway in this monumental template development. By creating new in-house practices and community infrastructure, the city-wide plastic film recycling template is staged to evolve corporate recycling options beyond single-stream. The pioneers are gathering to forge pathways into the a new recycling frontier. Stay tuned!!!


  1. Congratulations Holly and to Elemental Impact for achieving another Zero Waste Milestone! May your passion, drive for environmentally sustainable excellence, practicality, and willingness to challenge the status quo serve as a model for others to replicate and to achieve a level of success not previously seen or realized in businesses or organizations! Thanks for making your hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, a better place to work and live and may your efforts not go unnoticed!

    1. Thanks Scott! Ei always appreciates your support and honors your contributions to effecting necessary change. Note Ei's ATL work is template creation-oriented with the intent for national impact.