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A closer look at the Hefty EnergyBag program that diverts from landfills plastics packaging such as chip bags and juice pouches that cannot be recycled for conversion into energy resources.

Rick Lingle, Senior Technical Editor

January 30, 2018

8 Min Read
Hefty strides made in recovering plastic packaging as an energy source

The plastics community continues moving forward to recovering currently non-recyclable packaging and other items and extracting energy from those materials. One of the most recent steps taken stateside was when Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics (Midland, MI) and Keep America Beautiful announced in early January that two $50,000 grants were designated  for organizations in Cobb County, GA and Boise, ID, to establish the Hefty EnergyBag program in their respective communities.

The program offers an innovative approach to diverting plastics that cannot be recycled—such as chip bags and juice pouches—from landfills and converting the materials into valuable energy resources. The two winning communities will provide collected materials to facilities utilizing advanced non-combustion conversion technologies, which can generate a liquid fuel, such as diesel. To date, Hefty EnergyBag curbside and non-curbside programs, which include a 2014 EnergyBag Pilot in Citrus Heights, CA and permanent program in Omaha, NE, have kept 17.3 tons of plastics out of landfills.

PlasticsToday wanted to find out more about the program and where things are heading. Answering our questions is Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability Director, Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics.

What will come from the total $100k investment, how long will that last and what happens after the funding is exhausted?

Wooster: The winning communities are committed to continuing the program even after the initial one-time grant funding has been exhausted. The individual programs will determine how and when they spend the funds; the implementation phase is expected to occur in the first half of 2018 for Boise and in late 2018 for Cobb County.

As part of the investment, Dow will provide a framework for implementing the program and will facilitate the planning, implementation and measurement phases. Recipients are responsible for managing the program and soliciting involvement from key community stakeholders.

The press release indicates that the materials will be sent to “facilities utilizing advanced non-combustion conversion technologies.” What more can you tell us about those operations?

Wooster: Materials collected through the Boise and Cobb County Hefty EnergyBag programs will be used by existing alternative energy recovery facilities which use non-combustion conversion technologies that convert non-recycled plastics to valuable resources such as oil, diesel and potentially chemical feedstocks thereby helping to minimize the extraction and processing of new virgin resources.

Energy recovery facilities that are approved to receive Hefty EnergyBag program materials must undergo a strict vetting process. With support from environmental consulting firms, the facilities are assessed based on facility ownership, financial stability, environmental compliance and permits, air pollution controls, facility operational practices, voluntary controls and analysis of the environmental impacts.

For example, the energy recovery facilities must hold applicable environmental permits and reports from environmental agencies, as required. These can include comparisons of actual emissions to current regulatory standards and industry best practices.

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What are the basics of the energy recovery conversion process?  

Wooster: After the Hefty EnergyBag orange bags are collected, sorted and baled at materials recovery facilities, they are shipped to local energy recovery companies for conversion into valuable resources. Potential energy recovery outlets for the Hefty EnergyBag materials can include technologies such as pyrolysis, gasification and cement kiln facilities.

Energy recovery technologies that Cobb County and Boise will be using for their programs are complementary to mechanical recycling because they are able to capture the energy value of non-recycled plastics that would otherwise be thrown out and wasted in the landfill. Pyrolysis is a non-combustion conversion process that breaks down plastics into hydrocarbons by submitting them to high temperatures (350°C to 800°C or 662°F to 1,472°F) in an oxygen-free environment. Products of pyrolysis include oils, waxes, fuels and ultimately chemical feedstocks. The value of energy recovery outputs depends on the type of plastics collected and the price of competing energy sources. The recovery efficiencies vary with each individual process.

Do you expect these programs to continue to spread?

Wooster: Since we have proven the Hefty EnergyBag program works (i.e. that non-recycled plastics can be collected at curbside and at a quality acceptable for energy recovery outlets), we plan to gradually expand the program to other cities across the country.

Once energy recovery technologies are more widely used and accepted as valuable producers of liquid fuels such as diesel, the expectation is that this will lead to the acceptance and use of these technologies to produce a chemical feedstock which could be used to create new plastics.  Our vision is to expand the use of new technologies that lead to the advancement of the circular economy, which we strive for.

Where do U.S. efforts stand vs. similar programs in other regions such as Europe?

Wooster: The Hefty EnergyBag program, which is currently active in the U.S., complements mechanical recycling by providing a much-needed solution for plastics that currently cannot be mechanically recycled. The program enables curbside collection and conversion of these non-recycled materials into valuable energy resources. It is a significant step forward for the U.S. in achieving positive long-term environmental and economic advantages, including more alternative energy resources and fewer tons of valuable plastics ending up in U.S. landfills.

In certain parts of Europe, collection systems and treatment technologies for plastics are well-established and enable the integration of mechanical recycling with energy recovery. For example, in 2014, it was reported that plastics recycling and energy recovery reached an average of a 69.2% diversion rate in the EU28, Norway and Switzerland. Countries such as Switzerland and Austria are leading the way with the high recycling and energy recovery rates in excess of 95%, thereby minimizing the amount of plastics going to landfills.

Is this energy recovery solution the default process when other options are unavailable or impractical?

Wooster: Dow and the plastics industry are working to increase the amount of plastic packaging and materials that can be mechanically recycled by re-designing packaging where possible and by creating innovative new technologies that allow for increased recycling.

While mechanical recycling is the preferred solution for many post-use plastics, some plastics cannot be readily mechanically recycled because of material composition or lack of end users. In this case, according to the EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy, energy recovery is the next best sustainable alternative. A range of energy recovery technologies are being used to complement mechanical recycling in order to help divert these valuable post-use plastics from landfills. These options complement each other and help realize the full potential of discarded plastic. While we are improving options for capturing value from used plastics, it is important to keep in mind why those plastics were used in the first place. The value in the use of the plastics will always be the primary driver of sustainability, and we must remember to keep that in mind as we optimize the value captured after the use phase is completed.

Where does this work within a Circular Economy model?

Wooster: As a global advocate for resource recovery technologies, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics is dedicated to sustainability through policies and programs that advance the vision of a circular economy for plastics, an important focus of the 2025 sustainability goals Dow set in 2015. Plastics are a valuable resource and through energy recovery we can recover their embedded energy content. There is no reason to continue to send plastics items that cannot be or are not being mechanically recycled to the landfill, when we can recover them to be used as valuable resources. The circular economy requires the input of energy and capturing the energy value from materials that would otherwise be wasted, which helps conserve resources that benefit all of us.

We have learned that energy recovery technologies, as supported by EPA's waste management hierarchy, have a definite role to play in diverting non-recycled plastics from landfills. While most pyrolysis technologies currently produce an oil or diesel fuel output, the continued development and acceptance of these technologies is necessary for chemical recycling to occur at acceptable scale. This will help us achieve the ultimate circular economy goal of creating new plastics from materials that can’t be recycled via traditional mechanical recycling processes.

Our long-term vision for the Hefty EnergyBag program is that collected materials are used not only as energy resources but also for chemical recycling whereby new plastic feedstocks such as naphtha can be produced and used to make new plastics in a closed-loop system which satisfies the requirements of the circular economy.

How does this method of recovery compare to the TerraCycle model, i.e., programs that repurpose otherwise non-recyclable materials?

Wooster: At Dow, we believe we need a wide variety of technologies and systems to create a sustainable society. The Hefty EnergyBag program and other innovative recycling systems are complementary to traditional mechanical recycling. Many different types of recycling, repurposing and reuse programs can contribute to creating a more sustainable society by allowing resources to be used more efficiently.

Anything else to point out to PlasticsToday’s audience?

Wooster: While better management of used plastic packaging is an important part of improving our sustainability performance, it is essential to recognize that the use phase of the lifecycle is the most important contributor to sustainability. Our decisions about sustainability should always be based on the benefits and burdens across the entire lifecycle, not on a single phase. By allowing food, medicine and other products to be delivered safely to consumers by providing the needed protection, we are able to make a tremendous positive impact. We must all remember that packaging is an investment that protects the resources used to make the products inside it.

For more information, visit  http://www.hefty.com/hefty-energybag/faqs/

About the Author(s)

Rick Lingle

Senior Technical Editor, Packaging Digest and PlasticsToday

Rick Lingle is Senior Technical Editor, Packaging Digest and PlasticsToday. He’s been a packaging media journalist since 1985 specializing in food, beverage and plastic markets. He has a chemistry degree from Clarke College and has worked in food industry R&D for Standard Brands/Nabisco and the R.T. French Co. Reach him at [email protected] or 630-481-1426.

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