According to Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at WM, increasing recycling rates by unlocking new material resources is one of the biggest challenges facing the recycling industry today.
He says WM wants to find ways to increase the materials it recycles from current residential and commercial customers and to expand to serve new communities that don’t have residential curb recycling programs.
“That’s our motivation: to unlock offerings for existing customers and then enter new markets that don’t have a range of sustainability services,” says Bell.
He adds that WM has recently invested to expand this fall in several communities, including Cleveland; Seattle; Spokane, Washington; and Pembroke Pines, Florida.
In addition to expanding services with existing and new customers, Houston-headquartered WM wants to see a greater variety of materials recycled. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), also known as film plastic, is rarely accepted in curbside recycling programs since most material recovery facilities (MRFs) lack the infrastructure to adequately process films.
In 2023, WM plans to launch a pilot plastic film recycling program in Hickory Hills, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, and is partnering with Midland, Michigan-based Dow Inc. to help with the program. Hickory Hills covers approximately 3,500 households, and the pilot will allow WM customers to recycle film plastic in their street-side recycling bins.
WM says it plans to invest more than $800 million through 2025 to enhance and improve its recycling infrastructure for sorting plastic films, and Dow plans to support this initiative by incorporating this recycled content into a number of its product solutions.
In addition to partnering with Dow, WM plans to acquire a controlling interest in Houston-based Avangard Innovative. Through this acquisition, WM says it will establish an independent company known as Natura PCR to provide circular solutions for films and clear plastic film, such as plastic stretch wrap and shrink wrap, from its commercial customers.
Recycle today connected with Bell to discuss WM’s latest efforts with Avangard Innovative and Dow aimed at increasing recycling rates and end-market viability of film plastics.
Recycle 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 with this deal?
Brent Bell (BB): One of the thought processes behind that is we handled a lot of film for major national chains — supermarket chains and things like that — and of all raw materials, plastic film [is] hardest for us to find homes for. We worked with Avangard [and] they could handle a little bit, but they only had one facility here in the Houston area. What we realized was by bringing the film to them, having them process that film, and then some of their customers, including Dow, they were finally able to turn their product into a shopping bag or a garbage bag again.
Our customers… love recycling and they had grown to ask us for more sustainable solutions. This is actually a circular solution. [With this acquisition], we can actually take that customer’s material, process it through a partnership with Avangard, and eventually return it to the store shelf of the same store that initially generated that material. So the circularity solution was very interesting to us.
Then we said, ‘Let’s make this investment, make this relationship with Avangard,’ which we’re going to call that company Natura PCR. It’s not officially closed all the way yet, but once it closes that will be a business that we can help expand into other markets, maybe expand their current facility and operations to take more material. … Just to be clear, the film and the relationship we have with Avangard, it’s what I’ll call the grade A type of film that would come off the back of a distribution center or a major retail or supermarket chain where, in most cases, the customer is separating and baling that material and we would just sort it out for them.
[The deal with Avangard] more or less solved that problem we had with our end markets, but also opened the door for circular solutions. So we’re very excited about the progression of that relationship with the Natura PCR.
RT: On America Recycles Day, November 15, WM announced a partnership with Dow, allowing WM to launch a plastic film recycling pilot program in a Chicago suburb. Why and how does this collaboration fit well with your company?
BB: When we started developing a relationship with Dow, we looked at the automation we’ve done with some of our facilities, and said we want to improve the list of acceptable items that these facilities have today. Plastic wrap has one of the lowest recycling rates we have today. Access to curbside recycling for plastic film is extremely small. And before that, we were part of the problem. Many of the equipment recycling facilities had film that would pack 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 that it looks like film can be treated differently in these automated facilities, be able to segregate the source and have a valuable end market for that material. There we worked together with Dow.
We get a decent amount of film [contamination] in facilities today, so we kind of know how they’re treated and how they work through the equipment. But we said, ‘What if we really turn against a community?’ Hickory Hills was selected – it will power our Chicago plant. … We said, ‘Let’s see how that movie, once you open the doors, if you will, and accept that item into a program, let’s see how it reacts within the facility.’ … It’s just testing the final results to say what kind of movie we’re getting? How much more film do we get than we already got, even if it wasn’t accepted? How can the facilities handle this? Then, most importantly, what kind of end markets can that material go to?
Those are all things the pilot will help us find and learn. Obviously, we hope we get some good best practices that we can roll out [other] communities.
RT: How has WM communicated with the residents of Hickory Hills about introducing plastic wrap into the curbside recycling program?
BB: We have worked with [Hickory Hills] informed their residents over the past two months with several campaigns to include the plastic films in their system. We’ve got some ad campaigns with some pictures on them to show you what kind of materials they can put in now, which ones are new. I’m sure some residents will say, ‘I’ve had film in my system for years. I didn’t know it wasn’t accepted.’
… We’re really trying to document, have a baseline for how much plastic and film and materials we collected before, and now how much additional film can we get if we essentially turn on this pilot and can really educate consumers about what goes in there and sees just what that difference is. Even today I think we can tell you that by not getting film accepted into programs, I think MRFs across the country are probably already getting at least 1 to 2 percent of film even though it’s not being accepted.
RT: What kind of technology will help you process plastic wrap you collect in Hickory Hills and possibly from other communities in the future?
BB: We’re essentially making this $800 million investment across all of our infrastructure [upgrade] all of our facilities that process residential materials such as next-generation MRFs. To get film out, we need to install some extra equipment. I have grouped that into two different categories. There are the traditional, proven film extraction systems – they are a kind of bag suction systems over conveyor belts. The next step would be to actually sort that film from the lightweights that are collected in that suction system, like paper that can be picked up in there as well. Once that’s separated, we’ll make that movie in bales. So it’s kind of a traditional system.
We then try to apply technology in other recycling facilities outside of Chicago to see how this new technology can process film compared to traditional, proven methods. Is that less of a capital investment? Will you get a cleaner quality material? We are considering investing in other technologies to extract film as well.
RT: Recycling plastic film has long been a challenge. Why does it now make sense to form partnerships to try to recycle plastic film?
BB: When you look at your resources, you look at what [you] guarantee that we will have long-term sustainable homes and good outlets for our customers’ equipment. … You hear all the announcements from all these companies saying they want to put more recycled content in their products. In addition, you see some regulation coming online, minimum content laws like in New Jersey and California and then even extensive producer responsibility regulations. All this therefore indicates that there will be a very high demand for recycled material in the future.
Film in particular was one component that didn’t have a lot of solid infrastructure here in the US. We thought it was a space to get into that we really struggled to find markets for. So, how can WM get into that space with some investment in finding good, sustainable homes that tell a circularity story with our customers? That’s why movie looks attractive [area]. If you’re going to pick all the goods, this is the only space that really needs some investment, all the way from the curb to the processing side to the markets. That’s where we found this appealing.
RT: What other work does WM plan to do regarding film plastic recycling in 2023 that you can speak to?
BB: For 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 we can open them up to film recycling. … I think at WM our goal is to be consistent on our list of acceptable items. At some point, will we see a world where we can say, ‘Let’s make it easy. Put all your plastic 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 clear up the confusion of what I can put in the trash.
Brent Bell is vice president of recycling at WM in Houston. For more information visit www.wm.com.