Hilex Poly is working hard to develop a recycling stream that will change the way you think and feel about about plastic bags.
"We want to be the industry that helps improve and green other industries" explained Phil Rozensky, Director of Marketing and Sustainability, before leading myself and three other journalists on a tour of their impressively large (the world's largest) and efficient (machines run at 85%, a gold-standard) facility. Keep scrolling to follow along.
The world's population uses plastic bags at the rate of one million every minute.
Many people think that because plastic grocery bags aren't accepted at Municipal Recycling Facilities (they clog machinery and start fires) they aren't recyclable. In fact, the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic that composes these grocery bags is 100% recyclable and Hilex Poly's"Bag-2-Bag" recycling facility in North Vernon, Indiana does just that.
The facility operates under the guidance of 250 employees working around the clock to crank out 28 million plastic bags every day.
Bailed plastics are brought in by rail and truck from participating retailers and industries.
The reclaimed grocery bags are passed through a magnetic metal detector and hand-sorted to remove contaminants such as car keys, bowling balls, submarine sandwiches and any other materials that may have wound up in the mix.
Centrifuge and Extrusion
A quick, wet spin-cycle forces more contaminants to sink to the bottom of a centrifuge where another extrusion process draws a steaming pile of undesirable materials (namely receipts) out the side via a screw mechanism.
Compounded North Vernon Pellets
A scraper and two heat sources push across the plastic as it is formed into pellets. Pellets from the wet-line process described above and the dry-line process (which includes higher-value stretch films and first-use plastic bag scrap such as handle cut-outs) are reprocessed to form compounded North Vernon (CNV) pellets.
It takes about a dozen CNV pellets to make a post-consumer recycled grocery bag
100% post-consumer recycled plastic bags are possible, but demand is outstripping supply such that Hilex Poly currently produces bags with a minimum of 25% recycled content. Their goal is to be manufacturing 40% post-consumer recycled plastic bags by 2015.
The Bubble Machine
CNV pellets are weighed and mixed in a barrel at the bottom of these extruders where they are heated to 430F. By the time the bubble forms a cone, its temperature has dropped to 200F thanks to cooling air that runs the length of the film. When the film reaches the floor above it is wound onto rollers at a manageable 120F. The rollers spin clockwise to offset twisting.
The average roll weighs about 1500 lbs. Tan rolls in the foreground and gray rolls in the background are made from post-consumer plastics--the white and blue will become first-run bags; "breaks my heart to see it go away like that. It should have a note, 'return to original owner'" said Regional Manager, Doug Johnson, who followed the company from Texas.
A Bag is a Bag is a Bag Again
Hilex Poly's "Bag-2-Bag" program has saved well over 30 million pounds of plastic from the landfill.
Phil Rozensky speaks on behalf of the misunderstood polymer, reminding us that "there is no such thing as a single-use bag".
Most Americans reuse their plastic bags as garbage liners (about 60%), some will return them to a retailer to be recycled (13%) and others toss them out egregiously (20%). If you're like me, you have a stash in a kitchen drawer and call on them to act as leak-proof lunch sacks and to protect your gear and electronics when out in a drizzle.
One unsettling fact I learned was of the United States' growing demand for 'reusable' polypropylene bags. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, we import 1.8 billion of these bags each year. Six times the population of just over 300 million. These cheap (15 cent) imports are quickly becoming the next disposable bag.
The best way to combat plastic pollution and waste of this magnitude is to stop accepting bags of all kinds and tote own (make sure it's made with a strong, natural fiber). Still, it might make sense to bag the ban and refocus productive energy and educational resources on promoting this sustainable, domestic, green industry that provides us with cradle-to-cradle consumer convenience.
Return grocery bags, overwraps (from paper towels, tissues and bottles), newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags and other clean home polyethylene films (#2 or 4) to participating locations and ask local merchants to consider the switch to post-consumer recycled grocery bags.
For more info on why "Gray is the New Green" watch Earth911.com's interview with Hilex Poly's Director of Marketing & Sustainability, Phil Rozenski-- here.