- The Hefty EnergyBag program for mixed plastics and flexible packaging is set to expand with two new $50,000 grants from the Dow Chemical Company and Keep America Beautiful. The grants are open to all cities, but mid-sized ones with slightly higher median incomes are recommended in the guidelines. Partnerships with local haulers, recyclers and environmental groups are also listed as priorities.
- Proximity to viable end market outlets within a two-hour drive is also key. According to research commissioned by Dow, a majority of cities can meet this criteria. So far, material from the first EnergyBag pilot in Citrus Heights, CA was processed via pyrolysis and material from an ongoing program based in Omaha, NE is being used as cement kiln fuel. Gasification is also listed as a potential option.
- In addition to these grants, Dow plans to release guidance documents this year for municipalities and recycling companies to set up their own Hefty EnergyBag program without direct technical assistance. The estimated cost of participation for households is $6 per year and communities can choose to implement that fee in a variety of ways. Including the cost of purchasing and processing these bags in new recycling contracts is seen as the most ideal option by Dow.
This concept has come a long way since the initial three-month California pilot in 2014 — using purple bags at the time instead of the current orange — and continues to expand in Omaha. According to Dow, the Omaha program now has voluntary participation from 8,500 households through support from First Star Recycling and Recyclebank. That program has collected 13,000 orange bags of material equaling about 6.5 tons since it was launched in September 2016. It's estimated that eligible items comprise about 2-3% of the average U.S. waste stream.
Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, recognized that 6.5 tons may sound small compared to the overall waste stream but noted that each individual item being collected makes life easier for a city's material recovery facility.
“It helps to protect the quality of the other materials that they’re recycling," he told Waste Dive, explaining how sorting out one orange EnergyBag full of dozens of flexible plastic pouches is quicker than having to after each juice pouch or plastic utensil. “Right now that material’s just contamination.”
As for any environmental advocates or industry professionals who remain skeptical of flexible plastic packaging in general, and any efforts to normalize it in recycling systems, Wooster said they're missing the larger picture.
“People that would say that we didn’t consider recycling initially probably are thinking too much only about recycling," said Wooster, before going on to cite the savings in product preservation and weight reduction that flexible packaging provides as its primary functions. “So it’s actually designed to provide lots of sustainability benefits. It just happens that one benefit that it does not have is the ability to be mechanically recycled."
This strategy of creating new recycling solutions for products that don't easily fit into existing collection infrastructure is part of an ongoing trend that has been particularly prevalent in the plastic packaging sector. Many new ideas are in the works from Dow and others around changing the polymer structure of multi-layer packaging for easier processing or encouraging new markets to derive value it. So far, as if the case with plastic film and expanded polystyrene products, this often requires some form of separate drop-off system.
At a time when surprising numbers of U.S. residents still don't have automatic access to curbside recycling programs, and those that do aren't always participating properly, it remains unclear whether drop-off options can make a significant dent. Though according to Wooster, if residents do end up choosing to participate in the EnergyBag program, they could largely divert all of their plastic waste when also using existing curbside and drop-off options.