Trex widens PE scrap collection with Grassroots Movement

At a dual-stream MRF in a rural resort area of ​​northern Michigan, however, quality control measures have been successful for Emmet County Recycling in Harbor Springs, which gets materials from curbside carts and bins, drop-off sites with roll-off bins and drop offs directly at the MRF.

The county went to a dual-stream collection system in 2010 that has required an ongoing campaign to educate the public — seasonal and year-round residents — to recycle plastic bags with paper boxes and bags.

The other stream is mixed containers, which are often plastic, but also metal, glass, aluminum and cartons.

In some people’s minds, the dual streams are simply paper and plastic so proper sorting is an on-going message delivered through fliers, posters, brochures and social media, Lindsey Walker, market development and commercial accounts manager at Emmet County Recycling, said during a facility tour.

“We decided to put our plastic bags in with paper boxes and bags because in a dual-stream system it is inherently a cleaner and much more valuable stream,” Walker explained. “Cleanliness in terms of the specs that Trex needs or any end market in plastic bag and film in recycling is clean and dry. We educate: bag your bags clean and dry and recycle with paper boxes and bags. Mixed containers are inherently contaminated whether its food or cleaning oil or detergent or any of the contents from within these packages.”

About 25 percent of the recyclables in the mixed container bins are contaminated compared to only 2 percent of the paper, boxes and bags, Walker added.

The reclaimed PE film goes to Trex via a broker near Chicago or Listowel, Ontario-based EFS Plastics — as in Environmentally Friendly Solutions — which also has a facility in Hazleton, Pa.

While Trex turns the recyclables into composite decking, EFS turns them into pelletized PE, which the broker sells to a variety of customers.

“We would never accept a recyclable without having an end market. That’s something we’ve learned after doing this more than 30 years,” Walker said.

The program is working. Emmet County Recycling moves 20 tons of PE film a month in June through September when seasonal residents stay at their summer homes and then it collects that same amount every 45-60 days in the off season.

In 2020, the county invested in robotic sorting and modified its container line to recover more material.

“A combination of people and machinery are sorting the recyclables to get a good clean end product,” Walker said.

The facility has space to collect 40 tons of PE film waste for Trex. It struck up a partnership in 2013.

“When we talk about our role in the circular economy, we’re not just waste diversion specialists, we are feedstock producers for manufacturers,” Walker said. “If you think of yourself as a feedstock producer for a manufacturer you’re going to want to value that commodity and get it to the specs for the end market.”

Part of the county’s education campaign uses graphics to show the public the kinds of “other” plastics that “don’t belong” in the recycling bins. The graphic shows plastic hangers, hoses and toys, which are mostly landfilled.

For the operators of single-stream MRFs, Walker said the biggest threats to plastic bag recycling are the so-called star screeners for cardboard. The star-shaped drive shaft maintains an even flow of materials while separating the cardboard.

“They’re usually put at the front of the line,” Walker said. “You invest in these screeners because cardboard is your biggest value and you want to get out of the system right away because it’s big and bulky. But the screeners have axles and plastic bags are tanglers.”

In Emmet County, Walker said the facility’s partnership with NexTrex has been crucial in keeping low density PE film and bags in the recycling stream and out of landfills.

“NexTrex has also been an outreach catalyst in the sense that other communities and programs are contacting us wanting to learn how we took a problem material — plastic bags — and created a solution via recycling with the best composite lumber manufacturer in the US,” Walker said in a Trex news release about the program. “With good education, outreach … and strong end market relationships, plastic film and bag recycling is possible. Where there is a will there is a way.”