Matrix to Pellets: The Future of Label Waste

By Jack Kenny | March 30, 2010

A new company in Green Bay, WI, converts label waste into industrial pellets to offset the burning of coal by utilities and other plants.

Industrial pellets produced from pressure sensitive waste and other packaging materials by Greenwood Fuels.

Landfills are the beneficiaries of pressure sensitive stock around the world. Label waste is not recyclable using traditional repulping methods because of the presence of adhesives. Yet WS Packaging, and some other converters in Wisconsin, USA, are now able to divert their PS waste from the landfill to a plant that will convert it into industrial fuel pellets. In the case of WS Packaging, about 40 percent of its label waste today is going to Greenwood Fuels, the pellet producer in Green Bay, WI.

WS Packaging is one of the world's largest label converting companies. Its operation in Algoma, WI, occupies 180,000 square feet, making it the largest of the company's 16 North American manufacturing sites. An operation of that size produces a fair amount of waste material on a continuous basis. WS Packaging is deep into Lean Manufacturing, so waste volume is constantly monitored and reduced in every possible way, but it will never disappear. In 2009 the plant generated about 3,000 tons of waste material from the print process, most of that pressure sensitive labelstock.

This solution to an old problem has two main benefits. First, it diverts matrix, as label waste is traditionally known, away from the burial ground, where otherwise it would rot (or not) and join other contaminants in rendering that land useless for quite a long time. Second, the pellets resulting from the conversion process replace coal, a known pollutant, in industrial furnaces; the pellets burn clean under controlled conditions. Beyond this, as the demand for renewable energy increases, the demand for feedstocks that create renewable energy will increase. That could cause a tipping fee to drop and possibly disappear.

Ted Hansen, Greenwood Fuels' director of operations,
stands near a fraction of the label waste scheduled for the pelletizer on one day
For the converter, the impetus to seek alternatives to landfilling the waste has two sources: internal drive and customer pressure. "Customers frequently ask about environmental issues when it comes to labels," says Karen Naze, vice president of operations at WS Packaging's Algoma plant, "both from our perspective and from theirs." The label industry as a whole began a strong push toward greening their companies and products when Walmart started its sustainability initiative, but "we started this before Walmart," says Wayne Richter, chief manufacturing officer for WS Packaging.

At the Algoma plant, matrix waste goes right from the presses into a vacuum system from Precision Air Convey. The end point for the matrix is a baler, which packs the material into one-ton bales. These can fit neatly into one of the company's trucks, which can hold 17 or 18 bales for shipment to Greenwood Fuels, 40 miles west.

At the moment, however, matrix accounts for just 40 percent of the plant's total waste. Another 50 percent is makeready waste and rejects, which are too voluminous to enter the vacuum system. Piling this waste loosely into a trailer would amount to only six tons, as opposed to the 17 tons possible with the baler. Right now this loose material is going to a landfill, but with some new equipment, it could be baled and diverted to Greenwood Fuels.

"We will need to make internal changes," Richter says. "We'll need a shredder for that material before it goes to the baler, and we'll need to make electrical improvements and other adjustments." These improvements will be presented as a proposal in the near future to the company's board of directors.
"We are really pushing for it," says Naze. "We have partnerships with Fortune 100 companies who are eager to see this type of improvement. Our other facilities are also looking into this."

The bottom line is this: The Algoma plant produced 3,370 tons of waste in 2009, and of that, 85 to 90 percent can be converted into pellets. WS Packaging has to balance the cost of landfilling against the cost of doing business with Greenwood Fuels, plus consider the return on the investment in additional equipment. Then there is the question of the "intangible" benefit of recycling, what Karen Naze and many others call "the right thing to do."

A bale of shredded label waste at WS Packaging's Algoma plant emerges from the baler. Each bale weighs about a ton.

Moving away from coal

Greenwood Fuels began operations in Green Bay last year, producing industrial pellets from waste collected from label converters, flexible packaging converters and other suppliers. The company, which is owned by Plainfield Asset Management of Greenwich, CT, USA, occupies a 60,000 square foot building and employs 25 people. Jay Troger is president and CEO, and Ted Hansen is director of operations.

"Companies are trying to move away from coal," says Troger. "But replacing it is not economically feasible today. Biomass (energy from plant and animal waste) is not competitive with coal. The question has become, 'What kind of product can go into the plant and equal coal?' "

The pellet appears to be an answer to that question. While the energy value of the pellets does not equal that of coal, it's not too far off. The amount of pellets produced so far by Greenwood Fuels is dwarfed by the volume of coal burned by the region's two power plants, but they will welcome the alternative. In an environment in which oxygen is controlled, the pellets burn clean.

The mix of materials is important, says Hansen. "We use paper, low-melt plastics, polycoated pressure sensitive waste, and some other materials. The key is not to introduce chlorinated materials such as PVC and nylon," he says.

A detailed log is kept of the contents of the pellets: so much plastic, so much PS, so much plain paper. Dried paper pulp is added to the recipe from time to time. Greenwood must be able to assure its customers that the fuel contains a reliable amount of energy, so every hour a pellet is removed from the production line and tested in the laboratory for its BTU level.

The first pellet was produced in August of last year. To make it, the material waste was loaded into a conveyor which dumped it into an industrial chopper, breaking it down into small pieces. These were conveyed to the pelletizing unit, which forces the waste through small channels in thick steel dies. The presence of plastic is critical to the formation of the pellet because it acts as a bonding agent. From there the finished pellets go to large storage tanks for loading into trucks.

Greenwood Fuels gets its material from WS Packaging and from 22 other customers. Right now Greenwood's capacity is 125 tons per day, but plans are in place to increase that by 2011 to up to 400 tons per day, or 144,000 tons per year.

Moving away from landfill

Just south of Green Bay, in Little Chute, WI, Heartland Label Printers prepares shipments of label waste to Greenwood Fuels: 8.5 tons three times a week. Marketing Manager Jim Check estimates that Heartland will send 1,500 tons this year to be converted to pellets.

"Our landfill is right across the street," says Check, "and it costs us $46 a ton to take it there. On the other hand, sending it to Greenwood costs us about $38 a ton. We started shipping our waste there last year.

"Our customers really like this, and they are encouraging it," says Check. "It's a big deal. They want their suppliers to get on board with this."

Check estimates that Heartland's contribution to the pellet supply will replace about 1,000 tons of coal per year. The company also pursues other sustainability initiatives, including the purchase of a percentage of its operational electricity from wind generators.

Another major contributor to the waste volume at Greenwood is Channeled Resources, a label stock converter (the company salvages damaged rolls and sells them worldwide) whose operations are in Marathon City and Wausau, WI, about 100 miles Northwest of Green Bay. Channeled Resources, which sends about 500 tons a month of material to Greenwood Fuels, has partnered with the pellet producer to drive the development of feedstocks from a variety of sources, including major label converters.

Logistics is a big issue. Greenwood Fuels charges a tipping fee per ton for receipt of waste material. But that's only part of it. Getting the material to the plant is a significant consideration. Beyond a certain geographical distance the expense is not bearable. That's why the industry needs plants in regions.
The next Greenwood Fuels operation will be in the Cincinnati, OH area. The company is still in the application phase, so completion is some distance away. Still, interest by label converters has been piqued, and inquiries are coming in. The planned facility could probably serve an area from Louisville, KY, in the west to Columbus, OH in the east.

It's a start, and for Greenwood, WS Packaging, Heartland, Channeled Resources, and the other participants, it's an exciting and satisfying venture. As Jim Check says, echoing many others in the industry: "It's the right thing to do."

For more about industrial pellets, see Calvin Frost's Letters from the Earth column.

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