In August, the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority issued 2,000 new recycling bins to residents. Though they look the same as other carts, these containers are slightly different — they’re part organic waste, polystyrene foam, and whatever else (except for glass) recycling facilities don't accept.
The carts are made by UBQ, an Israeli company manufacturing a plastic replacement that makes use of otherwise non-recyclable or compostable refuse. The company's dream was to create a closed loop system for the waste that "no one wants" and make a bio-based material for new products, Chris Sveen, the company’s chief sustainability director, told Waste Dive.
This approach to recycling is fairly extreme compared to other recycled content initiatives among plastics producers.
“We’ve exceeded our expectations by actually producing material that is so commercially valuable and viable within the market,” says Sveen.
Though UBQ's product may depart from traditional practices, it's one of multiple companies and associations also looking to increase the amount of recycled content in industrial products. As the list of corporate and government sustainability goals continues to grow, and market changes inspire new uses for plastics, carts may lend themselves well to helping meet these demands.
Right now, the UBQ carts in Virginia are 12.5% “converted waste” plastic replacement. Sveen said the material is a breakdown of all the municipal trash — everything from chicken bones to dirty plastics — that is otherwise rejected. “Trucks going to landfills are going to us instead,” he said.
Current production is all in Israel, but the company is looking to open a new facility in the U.S. Earlier this month, Resource Recycling reported UBQ was considering Virginia. The materials are ground into basic building blocks like starches and fiber and bound with recycled plastics, which allow the material to become pliable when warm. Eventually, UBQ would like all their products to be 100% composite, which production facilities should be able to do. The material is designed to function in typical plastic machinery with few to no equipment changes, said Sveen.
Demand and durability
The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) is also encouraging members to make some seamless transitions: Not into food waste or paper, but an increased adoption of recycled plastic in their facilities. The program, called Demand Champions, asks participants to publicly commit to increasing the amount of recycled plastic they use within a year, said Kara Pochiro, vice president of communications and public affairs at APR.
Those adoptions can happen anywhere. The company can switch to internal-use goods that have a higher percentage of recycled content, introduce recycled plastics into new products of their own, or up the percentage of post-consumer resin in existing products.
Demand Champions started in 2017. As of the update released in early October, 20 companies had collectively upped their post-consumer resin use by 25.9 million pounds in the past year. Carts, crates and other durable items have become popular choices as the association works with companies to figure out where there’s room for recyclables.
“At first we thought about using recycled content in just their lids, but we talked more and realized it was possible to use it in the whole cart,” said Pochiro.
In fact, cart producers are already in the habit of incorporating recycled plastics into their products. The post-consumer material comes from existing, retired carts that have met the end of their lifetimes.
SSI Schaefer is one of those companies that can produce versions merging virgin plastic with reclaimed carts. The stabilizing material needed to maintain durability in partially-recycled carts does up production cost. Though it's still less expensive for Schaefer to collect and grind old carts than it is to source new plastic, said Brett Belda, the company’s director of national sales.
But too high a percentage of former carts in their final products makes SSI Schaefer nervous about durability. Customers typically want at least a 10-year guarantee on their carts, according to Belda, but if they also request their purchase be at least 30% recycled resin that can make it hard for SSI Schaefer to meet the desired lifespan.
“For a municipality to say they want as much regrind [plastic] as possible, I understand the mindset of that,” said Belda. “But the trade-off is that there’s a difficult situation when you’re still mandating a 10-year warranty.”
The stabilizing additive the company incorporates into partially-recycled carts requires a certain amount of virgin plastic to ensure 10 years of durability. Belda said SSI Schaefer is always working to redesign their products in a way that incorporates more recycled materials.
Toter, which claims to produce carts that use up to 50% recycled content, also relies on former carts. Though larger amounts of recycled plastic can reduce cart strength and durability, the more important deciding factor in Toter resin variety is color consistency.
Products made of lighter colors typically contain less recycled resin, wrote Henry Retamal, the president of operations for Toter's parent company Wastequip, via email. Any impurities in recycled plastic disturb color consistency in those carts the most.
“Increasing demand for darker colored carts is the quickest way to increase recycled content, since we can use more recycled content in these carts,” said Retamal.
Rethinking the future
UBQ claims it can meet the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority’s lifetime expectation of 10 years, though Sveen said the company is still testing durability measures for this and other products. When it comes to the future of durability demands, Sveen thinks that buyers might loosen their lifetime requirements as their concern for recycling rises. Products that can be endlessly broken down and recast, as UBQ plans to do, might take precedent.
For traditional cart producers, incorporating plastics made by less-familiar competitors comes with another set of integrity concerns.
When SSI Schaefer collects worn out carts it or other similar manufacturers produce, the company knows the product will be 100% HDPE. Belda said this also means the company can trust the new carts will assemble and perform like they’ve designed them to. Incorporating plastics from other companies runs the risk of those products being mislabeled and not providing the kind of plastic the product says it does—or at least, providing an impure variety. Melting those down and recasting them could surprise manufacturers with unwanted results.
This is a concern that APR is trying to address, too. Specifically, the association thinks domestic companies can take advantage of another source of HDPE plastics that’s no longer getting shipped overseas.
The relevant products are residential bulky rigid plastics — items like milk crates and laundry baskets. These are often made of HDPE and used to get sent abroad. But recent restrictions on what other nations will accept from the U.S. has opened a potential local market, said Liz Bedard, the director of APR’s olefin and rigid plastics recycling program. That’s why she’s been talking with cart manufacturers in the past year to see what it would take for them to incorporate these materials.
One potential solution is the association’s post-consumer recycling certification program. This initiative relies on third-party inspection groups that certify plastic quality and resins are what they say they are, ensuring companies like SSI Schaefer and Toter avoid impurity concerns.
APR is also writing a certification process for guaranteeing that post-consumer plastics are in fact recycled materials. The upcoming guidelines and quality standards can be applied by independent certification companies, which inspect plastics recyclers and certify their HDPE and other resins. Bedard hopes APR will have an online list of endorsed certifiers and plastic recyclers putting out certified resins by next February.
Even still, incorporating more recycled HDPE will take some experimentation. What with the freezing, thawing and extreme heat a cart might experience, “they go through a pretty tough life in those 10 years,” Bedard said.
As using recycled content in plastic products grows in popularity, other changes in the production mindset might need to happen. For example, some producers think that using recycled content might keep a product from being recycled again, which isn’t true, said Pochiro. Some might worry about a slight color change in their products if they’re 100% recycled — but those changes reportedly haven’t been a problem for many customers either.
And when it comes to producing carts, there’s a larger question to ask, said UBQ’s Sveen, that may get more people thinking.
“Philosophically speaking, does it make sense to use virgin materials to make trash cans?”