“Activists don't like plastics, period,” Michael Westerfield said. “They don’t like quick-service restaurants, and they certainly don't like packaging or anything single use. They'll pick us off one at a time. They were targeting plastic bags first, now they'll go after foam.”
Westerfield, corporate director of recycling programs, at packaging and food-service product manufacturer Dart Container Corp., shared his first-hand insights into the emboldened activists zeal for new bans at SPI’s recent Equipment and Moldmakers Leadership Summit (Oct. 26-28; Tucson).
Dart manufactures a number of items that are increasingly in the regulatory cross hairs, including cups made from coated paperboard, foam, HIPS (they acquired the iconic Solo brand), and PET, as well as portion containers and PS clamshells.
Westerfield recounted a recent conversation with a representative of a non-governmental organization seeking to restrict plastics use who stated plainly that a ban on foam the group was now pursuing, much like the plastic bag ban it had already helped push through, was “largely symbolic but a good fundraiser.”
In a slide, Westerfield shared an e-mail promotion he had recently received, which read “The Bag is Banned—What Should We Tackle Next?”—reinforcing the search for a new plastics public enemy No. 1.
Dart, like many manufacturers of EPS foam, has been proactive in its response to calls for bans, stepping up its recycling efforts [read about ACH Foam’s EPS recycling initiative]. “For us, recycling is key to the long-term viability of foam,” Westerfield said, “so we’ve invested heavily in it.”
Since foam is 95% air, the first step in reclaiming it is densification, reducing the volume it takes up as it’s repurposed. Dart is working with machinery suppliers on improving densification technologies, and Westerfield acknowledged that more work will be required at municipal recycling facilities (MRFs), many of which were built to sort aluminum, paper, and glass and struggle with foam and other plastics.
Westerfield was followed by Mark Daniels, senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy, at bag manufacturer Hilex Poly. Daniels and his company provided a post-ban perspective.
As background, Daniels laid out the numerous steps Hilex Poly has taken to reduce the impact of its product. In 2005, the company opened what Daniels called the first and largest cradle-to-cradle recycling facility for reprocessing bags and wraps. The company recently doubled the capacity of that recycling to more than 25 million lb/year.
Hilex has delivered approximately 34,000 recycling containers to retailers, collecting more than 1 billion lb of post-consumer bags. Daniels pointed out that studies show that around 75% of bags are reused, with an additional 10% recycled, adding up to a diversion rate of 85%.
Hilex Poly has 22 manufacturing facilities throughout U.S., Canada, and Mexico, running 340 extruders 24/7, while the broader bag-making sector boasts 380 facilities throughout the U.S., with more than 30,000 employees. According to Daniels, that figure has grown as leading retailers like Wal-Mart and Walgreens reshore some bag making to secure bags with recycled content.
A Not-So-Green Replacement
Recyclable PE “t-shirt” bags made by U.S.-based companies like Hilex Poly are increasingly being replaced with non-recyclable woven PP bags imported from countries including China. According to Daniels, more than 2 billion woven PP bags have been imported over the past few years as bans and fees took hold, resulting in enough bags for each family in the U.S. to have more than 20 each.
All this to displace a product that Daniels points out takes up 4 tenths of 1 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, is derived from suddenly abundant and domestically sourced natural gas and can carry 17-18 lb while only weighing 5g.
During his presentation, Daniels alluded to a new referendum seeking to overturn the bag ban, which at the time had 100,000 of the 500,000 signatures required. Whether or not that effort is successful, it seems the plastics industry will be fighting a multi-front war going forward.