“Thus without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end of life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”
The plastics industry has taken a lot of criticism over the years for not having a total life cycle solution for its products. This has had a material impact on the total size of the plastics market as various regions or cities have banned the use of items such as plastic bags, plastic bottles or polystyrene. Our challenge is to learn from the criticisms of the plastics industry and develop a full life cycle approach that manages our products from cradle-to-grave.
Believe it or not, we have a solution. This column will review the steps we must take to reduce material flow that, for the most part, is following the same path of plastics: the landfill. Our situation, however, is less complex. Our by-product is more defined and easier to gather, package and convert into a usable product versus complex and different polymers that make up plastics. This is one of the reasons I have supported and extolled the virtues of LCA (Life Cycle Assessment). LCA supports a “cradle-to-grave” approach for our products. Briefly, this column will describe one approach that supports LCA for pressure sensitive, label, liner, and flexible film materials.
Since 2009, Convergen Energy has been developing alternative energy solutions utilizing industrial by-products from many industrial sources. According to Ted Hansen, CEO and president of Convergen Energy, “We take non-recyclable industrial by-products, such as pressure sensitive roll labels, release liners and flexible films that would normally go to a landfill, and produce an alternative fuel that can be used as a clean burning substitute for fossil fuels. This allows many of our suppliers of non-recyclable materials to become landfill free in a very short period of time.” Convergen has developed expertise in converting non-recyclable materials into a sustainable fuel product. Materials are sorted, tested and processed in order to produce a fuel that complies with local and federal environmental regulations. Hansen goes on to say, “Manufacturers who divert their non-recyclable materials away from the landfill are also finding tremendous value in marketing to their customers that they are landfill-free and are making great strides in achieving sustainability objectives.”
Very simply, any paper or film that is coated, treated or laminated is a potential feedstock for a product that companies like Convergen manufacture. The one exception is chlorinated materials such as vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Some inks are also high in chlorine and cause contamination issues. Chlorine is one of the key constituents that prevents a material from being converted into a clean burning fuel alternative.
The point here is two-fold. First, everyone in the supply chain must realize that their material choice may affect end-of-life. Two, materials must be chosen with a sustainable end-of-life solution in mind.
The material substrates that have been created for the packaging industry that have end-of-life problems include pressure sensitive labels, flexible packaging, shrink films, wet glue and hot stamping foils. These materials are generated during both primary manufacturing or in converting processes that prepare the material for packaging. In the case of pressure sensitive, all facestocks, all adhesives, top coatings and over-laminations are considered ideal feedstocks, assuming chlorine levels are low. None of these materials can be traditionally recycled. They can’t be repulped or remelted. They are contaminated. This part is relatively straightforward because we know what is recyclable and what is not. The feedstocks that Convergen Energy are after are the non-recyclables. The important part of the LCA is to develop and implement a segregation system for the non-desirable materials at the point of generation. Can this be done? Of course! Does it mean a company will have to make an extra effort? Absolutely! You bet! But being able to divert 98% of your by-product from MSW (municipal solid waste) should be enough incentive for most companies. In most cases, this can be accomplished at a similar, or reduced, cost than landfilling the materials.
There are two other primary considerations before participating in Convergen’s end-of-life LCA: packaging and logistics. I have found over the years that segregation of feedstock is rarely the roadblock to participation in an end-of-life LCA solution. It is packaging and the cost of transportation. Normally, when we discuss packaging alternatives we can come to some sort of mutually beneficial solutions. Transportation cost, on the other hand, is something that we all have to consider, and satisfactory closure can be challenging. This, by itself, can appear to be a deal breaker when it comes to creating a successful end-of-life LCA scenario. Transportation costs must be compared to the total costs of landfilling: waste collection costs, hauling and pull charges, and landfill tipping fees. When all of the costs for landfilling are accounted, transportation is often not an issue. By the way, I was asked a good question with respect to transportation. Isn’t carbon footprint increased moving non-recyclables from point A to point B? This is usually not the case, especially when back-hauls are utilized or shipments contain greater than 20 tons per load.
The other important element that contributes to transportation costs is packaging. A company cannot economically transport compactor loads hundreds of miles for an end-of-life LCA solution. This does not make economic sense, much less environmental sense. The solution is to bale non-recyclables. This allows for the greatest yield, particularly if you can protect 40,000-pound (20 ton) shipments to the point of consumption. Volume dictates the kind of baler and the ultimate investment. Vertical balers, called downstrokes, cost $10,000 - $15,000. This kind of baler requires manual-tie of baling wires. Horizontal, automatic-tie balers, on the other hand, are priced as high as $100,000. Obviously, the choice of packaging equipment is based on the volume of material to be packaged, size of the operation and consideration of efficiencies and labor costs. There are plenty of professionals available to recommend equipment options.
The type of material, packaging requirements, and transportation costs are critical considerations for successful end-of-life LCA solutions. Once these three elements have been evaluated and determined, your non-recyclables can be used as feedstock by companies like Convergen Energy. In fact, using our industry’s waste to create a non-fossil fuel that is cleaner than coal and every bit as efficient in terms of caloric value is not merely a wonderful end-of-life solution; our waste takes on a new life as renewable energy.
Being proactive and creating an LCA solution makes much better sense than allowing our industrial by-products to be buried in a landfill. The solutions often result in cost savings compared to landfilling and provide tremendous marketing potential as sustainability goals are achieved.
I’ll let you in on some more good news: Ted Hansen will join me at Labelexpo this fall. We’re going to show you how easy it is to package PSA and flexible packaging waste. Stop by and we’ll give you a sample of the Convergen product made from our industry’s waste. Our country generated 350 million tons of MSW in 2013. I suspect that has now grown to 400 million tons, where 70% goes to the landfill. Wouldn’t it be exciting to be able to say you have helped reduce the amount of MSW by sending your waste to a company like Convergen? Stop by Labelexpo’s Eco Village in September, and we will show you how to do it.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is