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Plastic film sometimes goes from the store to your deck

WINCHESTER – Dave Heglas, a chemical engineer who runs materials acquisitions for Trex, showed me around their tidy – and mostly automated – 45-acre manufacturing site. 

Trex’s equipment ingests 20 to 25 tractor-trailers’ worth of polyethylene film and hardwood mill scraps per day, Heglas said. Think grocery bags, bread bags, toilet paper overwrap – that’s all polyethylene.

Trex reuses plastic film to create composite decking boards, which Trex heralds as higher quality and more attractive than centuries-old wooden decks.

If you’ve ever looked at the lid of your recycling bin, you know that this type of plastic film material is not accepted by single-stream recycling companies like County Waste. It jams up the sorting equipment and drifts into nearby trees, paying no heed to property lines.

But at the Trex factory, it takes a little less than 20 minutes for the raw materials to be sucked into chutes, shredded into plastic bits and sawdust and melded into a plank of decking that needs almost no maintenance over its 25-year lifespan. Flawed pieces are fed back into the machinery and reprocessed into new planks.

As Heglas tells it, Mobil Corp. built Trex for the express purpose of creating an end-use for the plastic grocery bags the petrochemical company was unleashing on the market in the early 1990s. 

Today, the company receives polyethylene film from more than 15,000 retailers and municipal collection sites like the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, each of which typically spend all year collecting and baling enough material to fill just one trailer, Heglas said.

It takes 60 to 70 pieces of plastic film to produce just one pound of recyclable material. (Capturing and baling the film is like “grabbing ghosts,” RSWA Director of Solid Waste Phil McKalips said.  “When we bale them, we have to make sure it’s not a windy day because they just go everywhere. Then we have to wrap 12 straps around the bale, because if you put the standard four straps on there, they’ll just – phhht, phhht, phhht – they’ll set themselves free.”)

Trex alone recycles more than 300 million pounds of plastic film per year, Heglas said. But, as he noted, only 10% of all plastic film is recycled, and Trex represents maybe 30% of that number. 

“It’s a lot of plastic, but it’s all relative,” Heglas said. “What about the other 90% [that’s not recycled]?”

One of the biggest problems facing a company like Trex – and municipalities like ours and consumers like us – is that the packaging industry is a free-for-all. Packaging manufacturers increasingly cut costs by reducing the amount of recyclable polyethylene and adding non-recyclable nylon or vinyl threads or closures to strengthen the package.

“There are probably five dozen different plastic pouch designs out there, and some are recyclable and some aren’t,” Heglas said. “It’s very difficult for a consumer to figure out which of those is recyclable, so we just have to keep it all out.”

Heglas made a proclamation rarely uttered by any businessman during a recent interview: his company needs more competition.

There are so many recyclers, and so few companies reusing plastic film (often used by companies to wrap products as they’re being shipped), Trex has often turned away recyclables, Heglas said.

“There’s too much material available,” Heglas said.

“Recycling in America over the last 15, 20 years was like the Wizard of Oz. There was the big curtain and this big PR push. And there was this big story that everything was OK,” Heglas said. “Just because we collected [recyclables], instantly people thought it was recycled and probably ⅔ of the [plastic] film that was collected in the U.S. was shifted over to China.” 

Heglas said he was, in many ways years ago, on the forefront of telling people that the U.S. couldn’t continue to rely on China to take a huge portion of American recyclables, “and nobody really paid attention.” 

“We spent all these years promoting collection, relying on the Chinese to take all of our material, not focusing on developing our own infrastructure of demand, and it’s gone,” Heglas said.

China scaled back on its imports of plastic recyclables in 2017 and virtually banned imports last year. Heglas said this exacerbated the problem already present in the U.S. of there not being enough focus on putting systems in place that encourage reuse of recyclable materials. After all, he points out, if material is sent off to be recycled but then has to be thrown in a landfill because nobody wants to reuse it, it’s ultimately just trash that’s adding to pollution.

Heglas said the U.S. was recycling about 1.2 billion pounds of film scrap in 2017 — about ⅔ going to China and the other ⅓ being used by Trex, meaning that in a two-year period, ⅔ of the market for plastic film recyclables vanished.

“That means there has to be two more [companies like] Trex, to handle all of the film that was already being collected. … People just don’t understand that magnitude of the impact. The demand went away,” Heglas said. “It’s great to collect material, but if there’s no home for it, you’re just wasting your money.” 

Part of the problem, Heglas said, is that companies can often create products from scratch for the same or less than collecting reused products. Often, that original, or “virgin” material, is higher quality, too, he said.

Among the possible solutions, Heglas argues, is government mandates for companies to use at least some recycled material in their products. 

In addition to creating incentives for companies to use recycled material, Heglas contends that governments should consider changing their own usage policies by only dealing with production companies that use recycled materials. That, he said, would create a bigger market of companies using recycled material instead of just virgin material.

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*Featured image by Stacey Evans.

Charlottesville Tomorrow