UIX: Closed loop manufacturing and the fight to save the planet

In the world of manufacturing, a straight line only gets you so far. Raw materials are put into one end and come out the other as car dashboards, wheels for office chairs, pallets and pallets of widgets, and even the pallets themselves.


The next stage in the life of these products has traditionally been the landfill. Kent County landfills alone process more than a billion pounds of waste a year, and while a potential 75% of it is recyclable, less than 10% is actually being reused in manufacturing. In communities where no landfill space is available, trash may be shipped thousands of miles around the world before it is offloaded. And for years, it was actually more lucrative to burn countless tons of fossil fuels in order to transport a significantly greater amount of trash to Southeast Asia, rather than sending it down the road to a domestic recycling center, which wasn’t equipped to process it as efficiently.


Until one day in 2018, when it wasn't.


China's National Sword policy effectively put a "Keep Out" sign on its massive landfills. The initial ban on four categories and 24 types of imported recyclables has since expanded, leaving many big cities in the U.S. holding more garbage than they know what to do with.


Thankfully, some do.


The solution involves redefining the life-cycle of plastic products from design to eventual failure, funneling waste back into input streams, and turning a straight line into a circle. Closed-loop manufacturing creates positive environmental and economic outcomes while reducing, according to the CIRP Journal of Manufacturing Science and Technology, "negative environmental impacts, such as waste, energy consumption, transport processes and packaging."


Material science


Cascade Engineering has closed the loop on several supply chains involved in industrial manufacturing, one being the roll carts traditionally used to usher other waste onto the landfill or a material reclamation center. Along with being linked to a user’s account by way of an RFID tag, the bins are made with a minimum 10% post-consumer recycled (PCR) material and a combination of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) formulations that can be easily ground up and reused after the bins break down and become garbage themselves.


Many of these carts already line the streets of Kent County and beyond, and many may have started out as the recyclables they once held for the collectors on pickup day. The plastics were collected and held at a materials recovery facility (MRF), then sorted and sent to a plastic recycling facility (PRF) where recycled plastics are cleaned and ground up into flakes.


Noble Polymers, a Cascade Engineering company, turns those flakes into pellets and resin to be used in injection molding machines like those used at Cascade Cart Solutions to create new garbage and recycling carts for residential and commercial use.


"Our customers are kind of beginning to value that a little bit more," says Brian Miller, Regional Sales Manager of Cascade Engineering. "Customers have kind of shifted the way that they're thinking about things and they're starting to value reusing materials more than maybe they would have in the past. There seems to be an increased focus on using alternative materials."


Brian MillerCascade buys the carts back from companies to divert that usable HDPE from the landfill. When sourced from outside their own products, however, the quality of certain polymers can vary. What suppliers label "wide-spec" HDPE may actually contain plastic flakes from a wider range of plastic types than intended, possibly even low-grade materials that fail to meet durability tests. In short, it's not the greatest for the environment, if it's usable at all.


"Wide-spec can be colored, and it's fairly consistent," Miller says. "It's cheaper from a cost standpoint than standard PCR and PCR has challenges, too, with color, contaminants, the consistencies of the material. It's really a challenge for manufacturers because it's offered at such a low price, and it really makes it difficult for those of us trying to use PCR."


An even newer frontier for reusable plastics focuses on those curbside containers as direct suppliers for the manufacturing process. Using post-consumer curbside recyclables allows companies like Cascade to rev up the closed-loop economy by increasing their access to recycled plastic.


"PCCR is really important for us to get out of this crisis around recycling right now," Miller says. "We got to create that domestic demand for this material. And that really, really can be a challenging thing for manufacturers."


Miller joined Cascade as an engineer after receiving a mechanical engineering degree from Grand Valley State University. He says the idea of a triple bottom line that seeks positive outcomes for people, the planet, and makes a profit, has infused his own ethic during 20 years at the company, as it has his colleagues.


A plastic waste container made with closed loop manufacturing."Those are the principles that Fred Keller started and Christina Keller's leadership has continued that journey and become part of me, who I am," Miller says. "It becomes part of your personal life as well as your work life, and who you are.


"Even if it's not the best thing for business, if it makes an impact on the environment, or makes an impact socially. It's the right thing to do."


Closing the loop


Stories of social and environmental impact are woven into every item created by Public Thread. Salvaged materials that have already spent a season as billboard signs and banners are reincarnated as laptop cases, fanny packs, and growler totes. In this manner, the boutique and textile manufacturer closes the loop that industrial manufacturing facilities have long left open.


Public Thread accepts donations from manufacturers of nylon, wool, leather, or 3D knit, and ideally enough to make at least 50 upcycled items.


"We use surplus and scrap textiles from area manufacturers and upcycle them into products that support living-wage jobs," Founder and President Janay Brower says. "Landfill diversion and designing around the materials that already exist is mostly about growing a circular economy and not allowing materials that would otherwise be landfilled or ground up for carpet backing, to be turned into products that can be sold in the marketplace — both via batches and individual products.


Products made from upcycled materials by Public Thread.Public Thread has made longer-term partnerships through specific material streams. The team of designers, sewists, and makers has combined old seat belts from PADNOS with used nylon and billboard material to make durable tote bags.


There, the story begins to stretch back even further.


Evolving practices


In the years following World War II, Americans could afford to buy new cars faster than the old ones were being taken apart for scrap. Meanwhile, manufacturers at the time were not held to the same environmental or social obligations and only sought to meet their bottom line. The result was miles of U.S. highways lined with abandoned automobiles.


The scourge worsened until 1965, when the Highway Beautification Act supported by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, effectively created the scrap metal industry and primed the then Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Company for explosive growth.


In the early 1970s, PADNOS installed a fragmentizer machine at its Holland facility that could tear apart an automobile in two minutes, rendering it into small pieces of scrap metal. News of the massive shredder spread throughout the U.S., even reaching Mexico City. Today's vehicles are made with many more potentially useful materials than just metal. While PADNOS can still demolish a car in record time, there is now more effort put into reclaiming the extra parts before they meet the fragmentizer.


Center console panels are processed in a lab and pelletized for automotive OEMs to use in the next generation of center consoles. Side mirrors are ground down and sold back to manufacturers who produce side mirrors. Bumpers become bumpers once more.


PADNOS grew throughout the 20th century, largely associated with metal scrap before current president Jonathan Padnos opened the company up to accept plastics in the 21st. Speaking at a West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum event held at Aquinas College, Padnos said he was excited to be at the company's helm during a time when plastics and sustainability have never been more at odds, though he's not the first Padnos to broach the subject.


In 1982, Stuart Padnos, Jonathan's grandfather and son of company founder Louis Padnos, spoke to the Society of Plastics.


"If you choose to develop a positive automobile program with 100% result, my recommendations are the following. Not use a material that does not have a recycled market, minimize the number of plastics material used, and code them in a very simple manner. Substitute metals whenever applicable."


"And thank goodness that he did, because this is the catalyst that we needed," Jonathan says.


In 2013, Stuart Padnos passed away. The same year, the Chinese government implemented the "Green Fence" policy, a year-long experiment which eventually became permanent when National Sword replaced it. Without the capacity for turning our own waste back into reusable materials, the roadside junkyards Lady Bird Johnson once bemoaned might seem like national parks. And while Lady Bird may not be here to ease us back from the point of no return, a Swedish teenager with millions more on her side has been persuading many to do a much better job at setting globally sustainable goals.


"There is no world where China all of a sudden decides on doing something and we're not going to feel it," Padnos says. "Greta is out there. Everybody is afraid of her a little bit and they should be."


Today, PADNOS receives about 3 billion pounds of material a year, which it strips down, sorts, processes, and turns into more valuable items that product manufacturers can use. PADNOS can bail paper, plastics, and metals in 17 different ways, determine the composition of dense materials using X-rays, repurpose electronics, and fabricate custom equipment to help other companies collect reusable materials easier.


All this and an international reach, Padnos says, still only scratches the surface of what closed-loop manufacturing is capable of, or perhaps what it's obligated to do.


"My 8-year-old daughter, my middle child, said that when she grows up she wants to be a marine biologist, and she wants to go into a submarine and collect all the plastic from the ocean," Padnos says. "It makes me want to cry a little bit. Right? How amazing is that? The level of caring from the next generation is real, and the world is waking up. We are all waking up. And we need to do this in partnership."


Circular economies rarely exist in a vacuum. They require the support of multiple individuals and organizations throughout the lifecycle of a single product. Like any chain, a weak link can break the circuit, but there's hope in the fact that companies like Cascade Engineering, Public Thread, and PADNOS are forging stronger links than ever.


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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