Innovation

Turning Hard to Recycle Plastic into Building Blocks

Recycling some types of consumer plastics is prohibitively difficult. Things like foam take-out containers and plastic bags just don’t translate very well into easily recycled materials. But now, thanks to a partnership among a group of companies, including Dow and Reynolds Consumer Products, a growing number of communities are turning hard to recycle plastics into building blocks.

The building blocks can be used to construct a variety of things, like the public benches recently installed in Boise, Idaho. But to make it work, cities and towns need residents to do their part. Like regular curbside recycling, participating in this type of program requires at least a minimal amount of consumer effort.

  1. How the Program Works

The program in question is known as the Hefty® EnergyBag® program. Reynolds provides communities with special orange bags given to consumers who want to participate. Consumers can throw everything from plastic food wrapping to grocery bags and candy wrappers into the orange bags.

Community waste haulers pick up the orange bags along with curbside recycling materials. The orange bags are kept separate at the local recycling center. They are accumulated until there is enough to ship to a partner company who utilizes a proprietary process to transform the bags and their contents into construction blocks.

Their process apparently produces blocks with no fillers, chemicals, or additives. It generates no emissions either. How they manage it is not clear. What is clear is the result: construction blocks with multiple applications ranging from the previously mentioned public benches to municipal bus shelters.

  1. Not Everything Is Accepted

Program participants are encouraged to utilize the orange bags for all sorts of plastic waste. However, not everything is accepted by the program. For example, potato chip bags with foil lining are not allowed in the orange bags. The program maintains a list of acceptable items and reminds consumers that all items must be clean and dry prior to putting them in the orange bags.

The program’s requirements illustrate two things: why curbside recycling does not work so well and how the curbside recycling concept could be fixed. By requiring cleaning and sorting at the user level, the program solves the two biggest problems that continually plague curbside recycling.

  1. Industrial Recycling at Home

Seraphim plastics, a Tennessee company that buys scrap plastic, recycles it, and then sells the results to manufacturers, says that the orange bag program mimics what industrial recyclers have been doing for decades. It is essentially industrial recycling at home, albeit on a smaller scale.

Customers who sell scrap plastic to Seraphim sort it themselves. They also make sure the plastic is clean and free from any contaminants that could jeopardize the load. All Seraphim has to do is pick up the scrap plastic and haul it away to their recycling centers. They do not have to sort or clean before the plastic is sent to their processing line.

  1. Plenty of Potential

The companies behind the orange bag program see to it that hard to recycle plastic is turned into construction blocks. Likewise, Seraphim produces plastic regrind that is used to manufacture new plastic products. The point is that there is plenty of potential for recycled plastic if we can solve the sorting and cleanliness issues.

Recycled PET bottles can become everything from carpet to sneakers. Other types of recycled plastic can be transformed into new food receptacles, eyewear frames, interior car components, and on and on. The list of possibilities is nearly endless. Successfully turning hard-to-recycle plastics into construction blocks proves that there are effective ways to recycle plastics.

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