Recycling Post-Consumer Plastics

I recently started volunteering with the Cincinnati Reuse and Recycling Hub, and offered to use my engineering background to help with plastics recycling. In the Cincinnati area, Rumpke handles the curbside recycling, removing large quantities of #1 PET bottles and #5 tubs from the waste stream (i.e. the landfill). At the Hub, we were getting a steady stream of #1 thermoforms (clamshells) and #5 containers, in addition to taking all of the other (#2, #3, #4, #6, #7 and no number) plastics. Just as I started volunteering, our plastics buyer said that they could no longer take 1s. I stepped up, confident that I could do tons of research (my specialty) and find a place for the 1s. Not so easy, as it turned out. PET thermoforms cause a variety of problems in the recycling process. Our primary buyer is a chemical recycler who uses a process called pyrolysis and including #1s in their feedstock (the plastics mix they put into their process) was causing fires. The primary issue for mechanical recyclers is the label and the amount of glue used, both of which can be very difficult to remove during processing.

But I was only able to understand these issues after intensive reading about plastics recycling. Material typically flows from the consumer to an MRF or material reclaim facility. The reclaim facility sorts and bales like materials, amasses a truckload of the bales, and sells the material to a buyer or recycler who uses it in their process, typically to produce pellets or flakes which are then made into new plastic products. We have a lot lower volume than a typical MRF, and our sorting and baling are done by hand, by volunteer labor. The lower volume makes us not nearly as attractive to a buyer as a customer like Rumpke is. Also, the plastics we are taking are the harder materials to recycle, thus, they bring lower fees per pound and there are fewer buyers. With Rumpke’s help, we were able to attract some new buyers who would take our 5s and our plastic film (plastic grocery bags, frozen food bags, etc).

Then, finally, I was able to locate one company in California who was willing to take our #1s, after a month of following one lead after another which led nowhere. I was mainly doing research on the internet, using sites like plasticrecycling.org and resource-recycling.com, but the information was often out of date and companies who said that they were accepting certain materials either no longer were, or never were in the first place or were out of business.

So now, the challenge is our limited space and our location on the fourth floor which limits our ability to operate a fork truck. Since the buyers we have identified want an entire truckload of material before they will even act like they know us, we need to figure out a way to store a truckload of 1s, a truckload of 5s and a truckload of film, plus a general area for all of the other numbers and miscellaneous material. We don’t even have a pallet stacker (though I have certainly put one on my Christmas list).

Stop on down and see us. Bring more material, which we like but then have to find a place for, which sort of stresses us out. But it’s the good kind stress, I guess.

Here are some pictures of our material after it’s baled. It takes up a lot less space this way.

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