Boosting recycling rates by unlocking new material supplies is one of the biggest challenges the recycling industry faces today, according to Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at WM.
He says WM wants to find ways to increase the materials it recycles from current residential and commercial customers as well as expand to serve new communities that lack residential curbside recycling programs.
“That’s our motivation—unlock supply for existing customers and then go into new markets that don’t have sustainability service offerings,” Bell says.
He adds that WM has recently invested to expand in several communities this fall, including Cleveland; Seattle; Spokane, Washington; and Pembroke Pines, Florida.
In addition to expanding services with existing and new customers, WM, headquartered in Houston, wants to see a wider variety of materials recycled. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), also known as film plastics, are seldom accepted in curbside recycling programs since most material recovery facilities (MRFs) lack infrastructure to sufficiently handle films.
In 2023, WM plans to launch a plastic film recycling pilot program in Hickory Hills, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago, and has partnered with Midland, Michigan-based Dow Inc. to help with the program. Hickory Hills covers about 3,500 households, and through the pilot, WM customers will be able to recycle film plastics in their curbside recycling bins.
WM says it plans to invest more than $800 million through 2025 to improve and enhance its recycling infrastructure to sort plastic films, and Dow plans to support this initiative by incorporating this recycled content into some of its product solutions.
In addition to the partnership with Dow, WM plans to acquire a controlling interest in Houston-based Avangard Innovative. Through this acquisition, WM says it will launch an independent company known as Natura PCR to provide circular solutions for films and clear plastic wrap, such as plastic stretch wrap and shrink wrap, from its commercial customers.
Recycling Today connected with Bell to discuss WM's latest efforts with Avangard Innovative and Dow that aim to increase the recycling rates and end-market viability for film plastics.
Recycling Today (RT): About two months ago, WM announced plans to acquire Avangard Innovative to develop Natura PCR. Why did this deal seem like a good fit for WM, and what progress has been made on this deal?
Brent Bell (BB): One of the thought processes behind that is we were handling a lot of film for large national chains—grocery store chains and things of that nature—and of all the commodities, plastic film [is] the most difficult for us to find homes for. We were working with Avangard [and] they could process a little bit, but they only had one facility here in the Houston area. What we realized was taking the film to them, having them process that film and then some of their customers would include Dow, they were ultimately able to make their product back into a grocery bag or a garbage sack.
Our customers … love recycling and they had grown to ask us for more sustainable solutions. This is actually providing a circular solution. [With this acquisition], we can actually take that customer’s material, process it through a partnership with Avangard and ultimately have it back on the store shelf of the same store that generated that material to begin with. So, the circularity solution was really interesting to us.
That’s when we said, ‘Let’s do this investment, have this relationship with Avangard,’ which we’re going to call that company Natura PCR. It hasn’t quite closed yet officially, but once it does close, that will be a company that we’ll be able to help expand to other markets, perhaps expand their current facility and operations to take more material. … To be clear, the film and the relationship that we have with Avangard it is what I’ll call the Grade A-type film that would be coming from the back of a distribution center or a large retail or grocery store chain where, in most of the cases, the customer is separating and baling that material and that we would just manage it for them.
[The deal with Avangard] kind of solved that issue we had with our end markets, but also opened up the door for the circularity solutions. So, we’re very excited about that relationship moving ahead with the Natura PCR.
RT: On America Recycles Day, which is Nov. 15, WM announced a partnership with Dow, which will enable WM to start a plastic film recycling pilot program in a Chicago suburb. Why and how is that partnership a good fit for your business?
BB: When we started developing a relationship with Dow, then we were looking at the automation that we’ve been doing with some of our facilities, saying we’d like to enhance the acceptable items list that these facilities take today. Plastic film is one of the lowest recycling rates we have today. Access to curbside recycling for plastic film is extremely small. And we were part of the issue for that. A lot of the equipment recycling facilities had, film would wrap up and not do well in the operations of these facilities. With these automations that we’re doing, it kind of opens the door to say it looks like that film can be handled differently in these automated facilities, be able to be source separate it out and have a valuable end market for that material. That’s where we were working with Dow.
We get a fair amount of film [contamination] in facilities today, so, we kind of know how they are being handled and how they work through the equipment. But we said, ‘What if we actually turn on a community?’ Hickory Hills was selected—it will feed our Chicago facility. … We said, ‘Let’s see how that film, once you open up the doors, if you will, and accept that item in a program, let’s see how it reacts within the facility.’ … It just kind of tests the end results to say what kind of film do we get? How much additional film will we get than we were already getting, even though it wasn’t accepted? How can the facilities handle it? Then, most importantly, what kind of end markets can that material go into?
That’s all stuff the pilot will help us find and learn. Obviously, the hopes would be that we would get some good best practices that we can roll out to [other] communities.
RT: How has WM communicated with Hickory Hills residents about introducing plastic film in the curbside recycling program?
BB: We’ve been working with [Hickory Hills] for the last two months on informing their residents with some campaigns on including the plastic films into their system. We have some ad campaigns with some pictures on it to show you what kind of materials they can put in there now, which ones are new. I’m sure some residents will say, ‘I’ve put film in my system for years. I didn’t know it wasn’t accepted.’
… We are trying to really document, have a baseline for how much plastics and film and materials were we collecting before, and then now how much additional film can we get once we essentially turn on this pilot and really are able to educate consumers on what goes in there and just see what that difference is. Even today, I think we can tell you that by not having film accepted in programs, I think MRFs across the country probably get an average of at least 1 to 2 percent of film already even though it's not accepted.
RT: What kind of technology will help you with processing plastic film you’re collecting in Hickory Hills and potentially from other communities in the future?
BB: We’re doing this $800 million investment in all of our infrastructure to essentially [upgrade] all of our facilities that handle residential materials like next-generation MRFs. To get film out, there’s some additional equipment that we have to install. I put that into two different categories. There’s the traditional, proven film extraction systems—they’re kind of bag suction systems over conveyors. The next step would be to actually sort that film from the lightweights that get collected in that suction system, like paper that can be picked up in that as well. Then, once that’s separated, we would bale that film. So, that’s kind of a traditional system.
Then, we are trying to do technology in other recycling facilities outside of Chicago to see how can this new technology handle film compared to the traditional, proven methods. Is that less of a capital investment? Do you get a cleaner grade of material? We’re looking at investing in other technologies to extract film out as well.
RT: Recycling plastic film has been a challenge for a long time. Why does now make sense to form partnerships to try to recycle plastic film?
BB: When you look at your commodities, you look at what [you] can guarantee we’ll have long-term, sustainable homes and good outlets for our customers’ material. … You hear all the announcements for all these companies saying they want to put more recycled content back into their products. Then along with that, you’re seeing some regulation is coming online, minimum-content laws like in New Jersey and California and then even extended producer responsibility regulation coming on. So, all this shapes up to say there’s going to be very high demand for recycled material in the future.
Film specifically was a part that didn’t have a lot of solid infrastructure here in the U.S. We thought it is one space to get into that we really struggle finding markets for. So, how can WM get into that space with some investments in finding good, sustainable homes that tells a circularity story with our customers? That’s why film looks like an attractive [area]. If you’re going to pick all the commodities, this is the one space it really needs some investments, all the way from the curbside to the processing side to the markets. That’s where we found this attractive.
RT: What other work does WM plan to do related to recycling film plastics in 2023 that you can speak to?
BB: Going into 2023, the plan would be to expand something like a Hickory Hills pilot, learn from that and expand that offering into other communities that we have so that we can open them up for film recycling. … I think at WM, our goal is to be consistent on our acceptable items list. At some point, do we see a world where we can say, ‘Let’s make it easy. Put all your plastics in the bin, and these automated facilities can sort that out.’
We’re not there today, but at some point, that would be a great goal to get to and eliminate the confusion on what I can put in the bin.
Brent Bell is vice president of recycling at Houston-based WM. For more information visit www.wm.com.