UIX: Grand Rapids has a plastic problem, and here's who's helping fix it

Plastic waste is a growing problem, in Grand Rapids, in West Michigan, in the United States, and the rest of the world. Here are the individuals and businesses that are working to use and reuse plastic more sustainably.

During two weeks in September and October, tens of thousands of West Michigan residents and inspired visitors have their chance to see art from around the world on display in Grand Rapids. Some bring their cameras, some bring their kids. Most all of them leave something behind.


Food trucks and local restaurants get a boom in business with the influx of customers, but the waste generated in those few weeks fills up trash bins faster than any other period throughout the year. Plastic ramekins with ketchup or salsa, plastic silverware and chip bags, even boxed lunches with everything wrapped in plastic contribute to a majority of the unrecyclable materials that are soon after offloaded at the South Kent Landfill.


Had the food trucks used compostable products, volunteers helping West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) and the city of Grand Rapids keep the city clean could have diverted twice as much material from the landfill, WMEAC Volunteer Coordinator Angela Fox says.


Films, or thin plastics, are a new line of recycling available locally.
Almost 70 volunteers helped educate ArtPrize visitors and those just walking through downtown Grand Rapids on the significance and purpose of the red, yellow, and green bins at each S.O.R.T.ing station. They were effectively used to keep trash off the streets, as well as separate recyclables and compostable organic material, but keeping all of that plastic out of the landfill is still a serious concern.


Plastic waste is a growing problem, in Grand Rapids, in West Michigan, in the United States, and the rest of the world. The U.S. kept just over 6 percent of its recyclable waste from getting dumped into landfills in the 1960s and has since improved upon that figure by another 28 percent, but this fact isn't all that impressive when compared to countries like Austria and Germany, each with recycling rates higher than 60 percent.


Throughout 2018, each human on the planet will use and throw away about 300 pounds of single-use plastic. In Michigan, according to the Economic Impact Potential and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste, a report backed by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Grand Valley State University, and civil engineers and architects Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, that plastic amounts to nearly a quarter of the solid waste generated every year, valued at about $129,253,785, which is enough to create 848 jobs if it was recovered and sold.


West Michigan has never had too much trouble finding uses for plastic, whether for its furniture industry, automotive applications, or elsewhere in manufacturing. Recycling those materials is often seen as a consumer responsibility, but the supply side is fighting for sustainability, too. New materials, and means of reclaiming old ones, are not just good for the environment, they can save on material costs.


Plastic reclamation starts with basic chemistry at Noble Polymers


Meagan Marko joined Noble Polymers as a chemical engineer a little over 10 years ago. Back then, she was writing formulations for new materials, while Noble provided plastic and polymer solutions solely for Cascade Engineering as a wholly owned subsidiary. She has since moved into the sales strategy and product line side of the business, while Noble has started marketing its products to the public.


"My education on the technical side has really helped me to translate strategies and ideas for sustainability into our products," she says.


Pallets, cut offs, and other materials are put into a grinding machine to be turned into small pieces of plastic to be recycled.
One of those strategies is using recycled resin in various polyolefin-based materials, plastic pellets or media, which are sold to businesses that use them or formed into custom-made products at their 4855 37th St SE facility, and shipped out from there.


Marko says the trick to working with recycled materials is like understanding a new class of polymer science.


"You really have to be technically better to make those things work," she says. "So we've really been able to apply our technical expertise to be successful in using recycled materials. Probably over 80 percent of the compounds we make start with a recycled resin base."


Ground up pieces of plastic fill a large container to be shipped to a melting facility.
Noble specializes in making polypropylene products, but they also have made some interesting partnerships to source the components of those products. By working with a powder coat painting company, Noble is able to obtain the overspray waste that would ordinarily be thrown straight into the landfill. Instead, it's used in Noble's materials, in place of mineral content.


"The overspray is a polymer but it's thermal set," Marko says. "So when we compound it into our material, it behaves as a filler and can replace minerals like calcium or talc. What was mineral filler before is now recycled content."


Noble has been in business since 1997 and selling to companies outside of Cascade Engineering since 2002. Since Noble’s early days as a supplier of polyolefin, polypropylene, and polyethylene, Marko and her colleagues have seen the industry move away from these materials, which can prove not only toxic but persistent and bioaccumulative. When these materials are trashed in a landfill, buried underground, or worse yet, set afloat at sea, they can damage the surrounding ecosystem and easily introduce harmful chemicals into the food chain.


Chopped plastics prepared for shipment. As an extension of Cascade Engineering, Noble Polymers participates in the same community building projects as its parent company.


In contrast, Noble's olefin base products are 100 percent recyclable, made with recycled materials, and the company understands how to turn them into products quickly; the makings of a successful business plan.


"We can quickly adapt to new technology and new products because we're small enough and nimble enough to really jump on board and help people get things done quickly," Marko says. "Especially if it meets our goals and our mission of who we are. And sustainability is a big part of that."


More plastics, more problems?


Not all plastics are created equal. Indeed, some are much easier to recycle than others.


High-density polyethylene (HDPE), for example, is "abundant and easy to recycle because it does not lose any specific or critical properties with additional heat cycles," says Kari Bliss, Customer Experience & Sustainability at Padnos.


HDPE also has a wide range of uses, from milk jugs to laundry detergent bottles, auto parts, construction barrels, and plastic bins used in manufacturing. It is common for these products to have significant recycled content, Bliss says, and it takes much less energy and natural resources to recycle than it does to create a new polymer from petroleum.


Plant and bio-based plastics are often perceived as more environmentally friendly than petroleum-based materials because they rely less on fossil fuels. They can both be recycled, but commingling them during the recycling stage can lead to a weaker product.


Leopollo Tinorio spreads out and sorts plastic to be recycled.
“A certain percentage of bioplastic may be able to be recycled with petroleum-based, but it can degrade the [structural] properties if the content is too high." Bliss says. "And, your average consumer cannot tell the difference between a bio-based versus a petroleum-based plastic.”


Further down the line of the sustainability spectrum, compostable plastics are designed to degrade when exposed to the elements or heated up in a professional compost facility. Petroleum products require heat during the recycling stage, as well, but the two cannot be mixed, or the result becomes an unusable mess.


"Whenever I go to an event that has compostable plastic cups I cringe," Bliss says. "Even events that have access to good recycle bins, I always see the compostable cups in with the water bottles. All those cups will need to be hand sorted out and cost more than the value of the material.


"I am a fan of events being 100 percent compostable. It eliminates any margin for error."


Sustainability at a big company starts with small measures


Bliss says she "spent a lot of time in the woods as a child," giving her a deep appreciation for nature. After earning her undergraduate degree from Aquinas, she went into real estate and worked on some of the first LEED-certified projects in Grand Rapids with Guy Bazzani. Bliss was also a founding board member for Local First and has seen firsthand how supporting the local economy makes a big difference in local business.


Keri Bliss on the floor of Padnos' large plastics recycling facility in Wyoming.
For the past three years, Bliss has served as treasurer for the Society of Plastic Engineers Sustainability Division, a position that has given her access to experts in the field who are working to solve similar problems.


One of those problems is goopy buckets.


"Can you imagine trying to get all the caramel out of a five-gallon bucket?" Bliss asks. "It takes a lot of chemicals and water. This can be done with a closed loop bucket wash line. We have partners who specialize in this process and we leave this type of cleaning to them."


Without those partners, however, the bucket seems like much less of a sustainable solution. That's how Padnos incorporates sustainability into its business decisions.


"We always consider the environmental impact before we introduce a new process or product," Bliss says.


Plastics are tested by Matt Jabaay for composition to determine how they are sorted to be recycled.
Padnos works with plastic manufacturers throughout the Midwest to take their plastic scrap and remanufacture it into a product they can reintroduce to their process. This saves them money, saves environmental resources, and reduces carbon footprint, Bliss says.


"We stay current on all leading practices for our industry and share that knowledge with our customers, too," she says. "If we are working with a manufacturer who has a zero landfill initiative, we will assist them in assessing their current process and find opportunities for improvement. We help them calculate ROI to prioritize the opportunities that will have the greatest impact."


As a member of both the Kent County Sustainable Business Park Stakeholder Review Committee and the City of Grand Rapids Sustainable Advisory Committee, Bliss maintains sight of the most innovative projects going on in West Michigan. In regards to recycling in particular, the Kent County Sustainable Business Park stands to make a tremendous impact in both job creation and diverting inorganic materials from the landfill.


The Kent County Board of Public Works approved the master plan for the Sustainable Business Park in early October. DPW Marketing and Communications Manager Kristen Weiland says this milestone allows her department the flexibility to link up with commercial partners who will soon channel local waste into different processing technologies and “put some of that material back into the marketplace as usable material.”


A business development team is now being formed, with representation from the Department of Public Works, which will reach out to potential partners.


West Michigan is stepping up to the responsibility of building a more sustainable future in plastic manufacturing and recycling, but we’re not the only ones that need to waste less while wanting for more. Plastic pollution is a global concern, and other countries are implementing strict policies to cut down on this pollution, whether as a benefit or detriment to domestic business.


China’s “National Sword” policy bans the recycling of 24 types of solid waste. The country is no longer accepting various plastics or unsorted mixed papers; an attempt to distance itself from the role of planetary landfill.


“It used to be fairly simple for us, as a recycling industry, to put a load of material on a cargo ship, send it to China, and get paid for it,” Weiland says. “Everything was fine, then. But, that shift in the global marketplace has forced us to look to ourselves and to look to each other to solve our own waste challenges.


Recycled plastics are carefully weighed before shipping.
“It's really forcing us to be innovative in the way that we think about how much waste that we’re generating, as well as what the opportunities are, instead of just burying it in a hole in the ground.”


This has also changed the way companies like Padnos can operate on an international scale.


“While short term it has been difficult to handle many of the materials that were shipped overseas, long term it is creating domestic processing capabilities," Bliss says.


For example, Padnos recently invested in a specialized film processing line. If that industry were still standardized around the same few formulations, facilities worldwide would be able to wrangle business with a similar process and cheap labor. If China were still accepting those materials, it would make the ROI for a film line difficult to prove. The National Sword policy has essentially eliminated some of Padnos’ strongest competition, allowing the company to recycle more of the materials in use.


Still, Bliss hopes the future of plastics doesn't involve a longer list of specialized processes.


"My hope is that we focus on designing products for longevity and recyclability," Bliss says. "Stop creating new polymers because each new polymer needs a new process for recycling. Additives like wood or feathers create their own set of challenges. When all of us start investing in products that last that are designed for recyclability, we will see the greatest impact."


Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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