Home / Blog / PE scrap collection at Trex widens with a new movement

PE scrap collection at Trex widens with a new movement

Jan 29, 2024Jan 29, 2024

Emmet County Michigan collects bags as part of its regular recycling program.

Winchester, Va.-based Trex Co. Inc. is widening its reach for used plastic film to cities, businesses, universities and organizations as part of its NexTrex Grassroots Movement to source more scrap for its composite decking.

Extruded from industrial wood sawdust and recycled polyethylene plastic film such as shopping bags, cereal box liners and bubble wrap, Trex decking is made up of 95 percent recycled content.

Trex says it upcycles about 400 million pounds of plastic waste annually, nearly all of which comes from post-consumer sources like newspaper sleeves, product overwrap, shrink wrap and stretch film used to palletize boxes.

A large portion of the recyclable PE comes from some 32,000 retailers and material recovery facilities (MRFs) that have warehouses or front-of-house collections to meet Trex's volume requirements for full trailer loads.

Now Trex is reaching out to other qualifying businesses and nonprofit groups to serve as drop-off sites for PE film while earning funds for their organizations.

At the same time, some commercial recyclers face hurdles finding end markets for post-consumer PE, or meeting quality and volume requirements of prospective buyers. They say retail collection bins often are contaminated by people tossing garbage in them and have no resale value. Some recycling watchdogs are even calling store PE recycling programs a charade.

At Trex, the goal of the grassroots program is to form alternative partnerships and engage a new and broader audience in recycling, according to Stephanie Hicks, Trex material account manager.

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"The intent of the NexTrex Grassroots Movement is to develop recycling programs outside of normal channels with counties, cities, municipalities, universities and other organizations that are interested in promoting plastic bag recycling to local residents," Hicks said in an email. "Grocery and retail store drop-off sites are great for their customers to recycle small amounts of household plastics. NexTrex Grassroots provides access for bulk drop-offs and recycling of larger quantities, including for small [and] medium-size businesses that may not otherwise have a plastic film recycling outlet."

With annual sales of $1.1 billion, Trex ranks No. 6 among North American pipe, profile and tubing extruders, according to Plastics News' latest ranking.

A slowdown in Trex sales, however, is expected in the second half of the year. The company's outlook for the third quarter shows sales of $185 million to $195 million, compared with $336 million for the third quarter in 2021. For the fourth quarter, sales of $180 million to $190 million are expected, compared with $304 million in the same period last year.

On Aug. 9, Trex CEO Bryan Fairbanks told investors: "Although we believe consumer demand for Trex decking and railing products remains healthy, in late June, we experienced a sudden reduction in pro-channel demand, as our partners began to adjust their inventory levels to align with expectations for an economic slowdown."

In response, Trex officials anticipate a "significant" reduction in sales as consumer demand is filled by existing channel inventories.

Despite the expected decline in business conditions, Trex is expanding its plastic waste collection to provide more community outlets. For example, Hicks said grocery and retail stores typically can't accept the amount of plastic film generated by large universities.

NexTrex Grassroots provides an opportunity for universities to work directly with Trex commercially to recycle the plastic film generated on their campuses.

Organizations can earn funding by serving as drop-off locations for community members to recycle their discarded plastic film packaging.

Grassroots partners need to house a baler on-site for bundling and weighing recycled plastic material. Trex will help with financing for a 60-inch downstroke baler that can be operated by one person. The equipment is 87 inches wide, 42 inches deep and 140 inches high, and it needs to be installed indoors.

Trex also provides a 53-foot trailer to store the bales, which weigh 750-1,000 pounds each. When the trailer is full, Trex picks up the material and hauls it at no cost to its manufacturing facilities in Virginia or Nevada.

Trex gets 20,000-40,000 pounds of recycled plastic film and the partners get a rebate, making it a source of ongoing funding for business operations or community initiatives.

"The program allows smaller entities to promote recycling locally while being monetarily compensated for their efforts," Hicks said.

Nearly all of Trex's recycled plastic film comes from post-consumer sources, Hicks said, pointing to items such as the overwrap on paper towels to dry cleaner bags, sandwich bags, newspaper sleeves, package liners and shopping bags to shrink wrap and stretch film used to palletize boxes and equipment.

"This used plastic film is sourced from approximately 32,000 retail collection locations, where the general public can drop off scrap polyethylene for recycling," Hicks added. "Additional sources include post-retail back-of-house operations and distribution centers where large amounts of shrink wrap are removed from pallets, as well as agricultural operations that use plastic sheeting to cover plants for moisture and temperature control."

Grassroots partners are supplied with instructional videos and promotional materials, free recycling bins and access to professional marketing and public relations support.

If needed, Trex will provide upfront financing to help with the purchase and installation of industrial balers.

Rebate funds earned through material collection may be used to pay off the financing or baler costs. After that, partners begin to receive full compensation for all collected film.

Hicks said participants save on waste disposal costs as well as generate income from the plastic film collected and sold to Trex. The possible range of money a partner could raise is discussed with interested parties and not disclosed publicly, she added.

Jeff Donlevy, general manager of Ming's Recycling Corp., which has facilities in Sacramento and Hayward, Calif., said the Trex grassroots program seems like it will be costly for partners.

"Very costly," Donlevy said in an email. "Their labor and equipment will collect small quantities over a longer period of time. The partner will not know how much it really costs them. They cannot accurately track their labor, equipment, electrical or facility costs. It's like the cost of growing strawberries or corn in your back yard vs. growing on a farm. You spend a lot of time and resources on a small harvest vs. a farm that has huge harvests."

Accumulating and storing 20-40 bales will take time, space and probably a forklift, Donlevy added, noting the program benefits Trex with free storage at its partners' sites.

"But the partner had to pay for the development, maintenance, insurance and security of the site," Donlevy said. "On the transportation [cost] side, picking up and hauling 40 bales is much lower than picking up 20 or 10 bales."

Ming's has sold A Grade recyclable film to Trex. The material comes from industrial warehouses and distribution centers and is typically clear pallet wrap film with small amounts of stickers or paper.

"It is pre-consumer material that has not been out in circulation with the public," Donlevy said.

Post-consumer PE collection always has a contamination problem, he added, because the material is coming from a wide variety of public places.

"In a warehouse or industrial environment, employees can be trained to collect and segregate the good recyclable material," Donlevy said. "In public, the training and knowledge of PE ranges from very knowledgeable to people just guessing. Bags can have cups, cans, glass bottles, clothes, diapers, dog poo or any other item imaginable. There is no quality control on what the public may put in a recycling bin."

Signage at an Emmet County drop-off center instructs residents on how to handle their bags.

At a dual-stream MRF in a rural resort area of northern Michigan, however, quality control measures have been successful for Emmet County Recycling in Harbor Springs, which gets materials from curbside carts and bins, drop-off sites with roll-off bins and drop-offs directly at the MRF.

The county went to a dual-stream collection system in 2010 that has required an ongoing campaign to educate the public — seasonal and year-round residents — to recycle plastic bags with paper boxes and bags.

The other stream is mixed containers, which are often plastic, but also metal, glass, aluminum and cartons.

In some people's minds, the dual streams are simply paper and plastic so proper sortation is an ongoing message delivered through fliers, posters, brochures and social media, Lindsey Walker, market development and commercial accounts manager at Emmet County Recycling, said during a facility tour.

"We decided to put our plastic bags in with paper boxes and bags because in a dual-stream system it is inherently a cleaner and much more valuable stream," Walker explained. "Cleanliness in terms of the specs that Trex needs or any end market in plastic bag and film in recycling is clean and dry. We educate: Bag your bags clean and dry, and recycle with paper boxes and bags. Mixed containers are inherently contaminated whether it's food or cleaning oil or detergent or any of the contents from within these packages."

About 25 percent of the recyclables in the mixed container bins are contaminated, compared with only 2 percent of the paper, boxes and bags, Walker added.

The reclaimed PE film goes to Trex via a broker near Chicago or Listowel, Ontario-based EFS Plastics — as in Environmentally Friendly Solutions — which also has a facility in Hazleton, Pa.

While Trex turns the recyclables into composite decking, EFS turns them into pelletized PE, which the broker sells to a variety of customers.

"We would never accept a recyclable without having an end market. That's something we've learned after doing this more than 30 years," Walker said.

The program is working. Emmet County Recycling moves 20 tons of PE film a month from June through September, when seasonal residents stay at their summer homes, and then it collects that same amount every 45-60 days in the offseason.

In 2020, the county invested in robotic sorting and modified its containers line to recover more material.

"A combination of people and machinery are sorting the recyclables to get a good, clean end product," Walker said.

The facility has space to collect 40 tons of PE film waste for Trex. It struck up a partnership in 2013.

"When we talk about our role in the circular economy, we're not just waste diversion specialists; we are feedstock producers for manufacturers," Walker said. "If you think of yourself as a feedstock producer for a manufacturer, you're going to want to value that commodity and get it to the specs for the end market."

Part of the county's education campaign uses graphics to show the public the kinds of "other" plastics that "don't belong" in the recycling bins. The graphic shows plastic hangers, hoses and toys, which are mostly landfilled.

For the operators of single-stream MRFs, Walker said the biggest threats to plastic bag recycling are the so-called star screeners for cardboard. The star-shaped drive shaft maintains an even flow of materials while separating the cardboard.

"They're usually put at the front of the line," Walker said. "You invest in these screeners because cardboard is your biggest value and you want to get out of the system right away because it's big and bulky. But the screeners have axles and plastic bags are tanglers."

In Emmet County, Walker said the facility's partnership with NexTrex has been crucial in keeping low density PE film and bags in the recycling stream and out of landfills.

"NexTrex has also been an outreach catalyst in the sense that other communities and programs are contacting us wanting to learn how we took a problem material — plastic bags — and created a solution via recycling with the best composite lumber manufacturer in the U.S.," Walker said in a Trex news release about the program. "With good education, outreach … and strong end market relationships, plastic film and bag recycling is possible. Where there is a will, there is a way."

Still, other recyclers are facing challenges.

While Trex says it recycles about 400 million pounds of plastic waste every year — almost all from post-consumer sources — bales of recyclable PE products sit around waiting for end users at many recycling facilities.

In Red Bank, N.J., residents can recycle plastic film in curbside buckets collected once a month by the city's public works staff. The post-consumer film is trucked to Mazza Recycling Services in Tinton Falls, N.J., which also receives a mix of recyclables from other sources.

Plastic film that had been improperly recycled with paper and cardboard jams the machines, which leads to daily two-hour shutdowns, according to Carlos Batista, operations manager of Mazza Recycling Services.

"This stuff can be very detrimental to the system. It can wrap around a lot of the shafts, a lot of the bearings. … It can actually cause either fire or mechanical damage," Batista told CBS Mornings for an "Earth 365" report.

The morning news show wanted to follow Red Bank's recyclables to a resource recovery facility and then a plastics processor making it into a new product. However, two weeks later, the baled PE film was still at Mazza Recycling.

Cost is a hurdle, according to Jan Dell, founder of the nonprofit group Last Beach Cleanup and co-author of a report released in May 2022 called "The Real Truth about the U.S. Plastics Recycling Rate."

"There just really aren't plastic processing factories in the U.S. who want to buy waste plastic and try to turn it into new plastic. Why? Because new plastic is so cheap," Dell told CBS Mornings.

The report she co-authored says the U.S. plastics recycling rate is only 5-6 percent. Dell told the TV news show that post-consumer plastic film, in particular, is a problem.

Store collection containers can get contaminated with other garbage and the plastic film can't be recovered, Dell said.

"There's no evidence that any of that is getting recycled," Dell said, seated next to a tall cardboard box with a sign saying "The Great Store Drop-Off Charade. "It's just too hard to collect. There's all types of different plastics, and they can't be recycled together.

In Red Bank, the PE waste film collection service is a one-year, opt-in pilot program sponsored by SC Johnson intended to make it easier to recycle bread bags and other household items.

However, Dell calls the program a "plastic greenwashing stunt."

"Credible recyclers say that the cost to send six people out to collect less than a ton of dirty plastic waste once a month is farcical," Dell said in an email.

An instructional video from Emmet County tells residents how to prepare their bags for recycling.

Back in Emmet County, the waste disposal and recycling programs manage to operate in the black, mostly breaking even. In 2021, sales of recyclables generated $1.13 million — up from $572,000 in 2020.

County officials said supply chain kinks highlighted the importance of recycled feedstocks and there was increased demand from corporate brands using more recycled content in products and packaging due to heightened environmental concerns.

Cardboard sales contributed $379,000 to the operation with its value peaking in 2021 at a multiyear high exceeding $200 per ton. The other standout was recyclable high density PE products, which hit a record high of $2,260 per ton late last summer.

Through networking and persistence, Emmet County Recycling has end markets for what it collects.

Plastic tags and containers used for gardening — mostly high density polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene — go to East Jordan Plastics some 35 miles away in East Jordan, Mich., where they are turned into horticultural products again.

Colored HDPE recyclables, such as milk jugs and laundry detergent containers, and clear PET water bottles go to Clean Tech Inc. in Dundee, Mich., to be turned into material to manufacture new containers and bottles.

Containers made from poly-coated white paper like coffee cups, milk and ice cream cartons, and aseptic, shelf-stable packaging for soups go to Great Lakes Tissue in Cheboygan, Mich., to be turned into tissue products.

Electronics, which are accepted for a handling and shipping fee, go to a processing partner that takes computers, laptops, televisions, gaming consoles, phones, stereos and their accessories.

Overall, in 2021, Emmet County Recycling brought in $2.48 million with revenue also coming from mulch sales and fees for curbside recycling, waste tipping and out-of-county rates. The county's expenses for the recycling program, such as personnel, operations and depreciation, came to $2.2 million.

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