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The Dow Chemical Co. aspires to facilitate the transition to a sustainable planet and society through collaboration across the intersections of business, government and society. Its subsidiary, Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics, Midland, Michigan, is following this model and wants to set a new course for the industry to offer better end-of-life options for nonrecycled plastics otherwise destined for landfills.

Plastic recycling has unique challenges. Flexible plastic products are strong and lightweight, providing many sustainability advantages, but they also pose real challenges for material recovery facilities (MRFs). Even very thin films can have 11 or more layers that cannot be separated for traditional mechanical recycling.

Dow wants to drive solutions to these challenges by creating technologies such as RecycleReady with Retain polymer modifiers to give manufacturers packaging options that work with existing mechanical recycling programs. But the company needs to do more to further increase the recovery of plastic packaging.

LENDING A HAND

No one company alone can solve all the complexities of plastic recycling. That is why Dow has reached out to other industry leaders to identify an innovative way for consumers to dispose of their nonrecycled household plastics, one that could capture the plastics’ inherent value and turn them into renewable energy resources. Through its collaborative efforts to collect and capture value from nonrecycled plastics, Dow created the Hefty Energy Bag program.

The Hefty Energy Bag Program seeks to educate citizens, municipalities and material recovery facilities on the end use of nonrecycled plastics.

The concept of the Hefty Energy Bag program was first tested through a pilot in partnership with Republic Services, Phoenix; The Flexible Packaging Association, Annapolis, Maryland; Agilyx, Tigard, Oregon; Reynolds Consumer Products, Lake Forest, Illinois; and the city of Citrus Heights, California. During the Citrus Heights Energy Bag Pilot, Agilyx employed pyrolysis to convert nonrecycled material and low-value plastics collected in purple bags into a high-value synthetic fuel oil. The three-month pilot collected 8,000 energy bags, diverting 6,000 pounds of previously nonrecycled plastics from the landfill while creating a usable energy resource.

In September 2016, the Hefty Energy Bag program launched in the Omaha, Nebraska, metropolitan area as a collaborative effort among Dow; Reynolds Consumer Products; Recyclebank, New York City; First Star Recycling, Omaha, Nebraska; Conagra Brands, Chicago; and Systech Environmental Corp., Dayton, Ohio.

Dow’s capability in plastics and its understanding of the technical challenges they can pose in material recovery are just two pieces of the puzzle making up the Hefty Energy Bag program. The municipalities of the Omaha area, local government officials and consumer recycling advocacy company Recyclebank combine to provide another piece of the puzzle by ensuring residents have all of the necessary resources to participate in the program through education and access. Recyclebank’s 6,000 existing members in the Omaha area were first to participate in the local program.

Plastic items, such as juice pouches, candy wrappers and plastic dinnerware, are placed into Hefty Energy Bags.

Reynolds manufactures the orange Hefty Energy Bags that consumers use to collect juice pouches, candy wrappers, plastic dinnerware and other types of plastic previously disposed of as waste. Conagra and many volunteers distributed the bags in person to each participating household. Omaha recycling contractor and MRF, First Star Recycling, sorts the orange bags, and Systech transforms the recovered plastics into energy as an alternative fuel to power cement production, completing the recovery cycle.

COLLABORATION BENEFITS

The Hefty Energy Bag Program is poised for local expansion because of the collective contributions by program participants and participation by Omaha-area residents. As of April 2017, the Hefty Energy Bag program has collected more than 10,000 bags, diverting more than 5 tons of plastic previously destined for landfills. During the project, Hefty Energy Bag has expanded to include 2,500 additional households as well as Conagra’s corporate campus.

The program is a key component of Dow’s goal to build a circular economy in which every molecule of useful material is kept at the highest value throughout its life cycle. As a supplier of resin to the packaging industry, Dow says it always has believed plastics are an extremely valuable resource. The collection and recovery of the energy embedded in plastics through of Hefty Energy Bag program is complementary to existing mechanical recycling programs and has proven that plastics in any form are a valuable resource across industries.

Dow’s long-term vision is to establish Hefty Energy Bag as a viable, self-contained energy reclamation program and business model while also continuing to increase mechanical recycling options for all kinds of plastic packaging. It is in the process of developing implementation guidelines for the program so it can be replicated in cities and markets throughout the U.S.

Municipalities, nongovernmental organizations, local MRFs and brand-owner facilities will be able to take advantage of the lessons Dow and its collaborators have learned through the course of the Citrus Heights and Omaha area programs. The essential first step for others to follow is to establish a collaboration between the municipalities, MRFs and an end user of the reclaimed plastics. After establishing a collaborative team, education of residents should be the next step to put the full cycle into practice. Dow will remain involved and available to provide technical support as needed to organizations that choose to invest in and implement their own Hefty Energy Bag program.

The success of the Hefty Energy Bag Omaha program and Citrus Heights pilot has proven the existence of a sustainable and financially sound process that can extend the life cycle of previously nonrecycled plastics. Program organizers aspire to serve as an example of how collaboration can progress innovation in recycling and waste management as we continue to move toward a more sustainable future.

Han Zhang, Ph.D., is the sustainability and advocacy manager at Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics, Midland, Michigan.