JUNE 2009

In plastics, being green can make green

When it comes to conserving resources, there’s no better strategy than recycling – using materials that have already been produced rather than depleting any resources to produce new ones.

Acrilex has implemented a greenstream model, and created a new revenue stream by doing so.

There are few areas where recycling has a more dramatic effect than in the plastics industry. The vast majority of plastics can be recycled; the only question is how easily. Plastic recycling tends to fall into two categories: pre-consumer and post-consumer. Most manufacturers focus on the pre-consumer variety; that is, utilizing the scrap generated during the manufacturing process and reincorporating it into their processes, an approach that has been in existence for quite some time.

While manufacturers have become increasingly active participants in the green game, distributors have spent most of their time on the sidelines. In fact, the part of the downstream usage chain where recycling can be most effective is at the distributor level. Furthermore, distributors can be an integral link in a process that can be referred to as the greenstream.

At Acrilex, the greenstream is defined as the multi-level model which “demonstrates eco-awareness and responsibility at all levels of the materials chain, including manufacturing of raw materials, distribution, utilization, consumption, reuse, disposal, and recycling. Deciding which processes take place at which level to ensure the most eco-friendly and responsible approaches to being green should, in fact, be determined by where a company fits within this greenstream. These approaches are still emerging, and the models for the greenstream are still evolving as awareness and cooperation grows.”

Acrilex transforms plastic sheets and plastic products into parts and end products that are purchased by customers. In the process, waste is generated. Since Acrilex does not have a use for that waste internally, it would typically find its way into landfills, as it would with most distributors. This scrap can instead be reused as part of the pre-consumer movement.

While the greenstream approach has a positive impact on the environment, there are other reasons to participate in the initiative. The excess material and scrap generated can be sold back to manufacturers (or to specialty plastic recycling companies, who will then sell it to the manufacturers themselves). In doing so, Acrilex created a new revenue stream. So recycling plastic scrap is not only environmentally responsible, but it can translate to cold, hard cash. In other words, being green can lead to green.

It’s not only scrap that can become an integral part of a distributor’s greenstream process. Many distributors have excess inventory and damaged goods that manufacturers won’t take back as product; consequently, the distributor is forced to dispose of this excess in landfills. By recycling it as scrap, the distributor can turn useless items into added revenue, while providing the manufacturer with much-needed raw material – all with virtually no environmental impact. It’s a simple formula: every pound of plastic that you recycle is one less pound of raw material you need to utilize, resulting in one less pound of scrap in a landfill.

It should be noted that distributors are in a unique position to take advantage of both sides of the greenstream chain. Collecting their own scrap and selling it back to manufacturers or third-party companies is one side; but distributors also have the opportunity to position themselves as a resource to companies further down the supply chain.

For example, many end users, such as plastic fabricators, sign shops, display and fixture manufacturers, have scrap of their own that they may want disposed of, but either they do not know where to send it or, more likely, are not willing to expend the time and money to set up a comprehensive recycling program. As a value-added service, distributors can offer to pick up this scrap from resellers, end users, even their customers who need a way to get rid of their mistakes, prototypes, and excess materials. In doing so, the distributor not only acquires more scrap for sale (additional revenue), but further solidifies its business relationship with that company. What’s more, by removing waste the customer would otherwise have to pay to dispose of, the distributor helps the customer become part of the greenstream, even if the customer company itself would not be considered “green” by manufacturing standards.

Of course there are some energy costs associated with the collection, sale and distribution of scrap (cost of gas to transport the material, labor to collect it, etc.), but these are minor compared to the potential revenue that can be generated and the positive impact on the environment.

Acrilex has a number of different levels of recycling, all stemming from their dual role as both a plastic manufacturer and a distributor. As distributor, they handle multiple types of plastic. Some of their scrap – excess sheet scrap, the skeleton remains that come from CNC routers – are placed on skids, palletized and stored. Acrilex will warehouse this scrap until they can maximize the economics of shipping it out.

The final form of their scrap is plastic sawdust – predominantly acrylic – that is generated during the plastics to fabrication process. (This is an area which certainly requires more industry-wide attention, given that over 80 tons of plastic sawdust that Acrilex generates each year is not getting into landfills). The material is accumulated by dust collectors and picked up by a manufacturer who utilizes it as filler/binder for the product they’re extruding.

Further, as a manufacturer, unused waste monomer will be polymerized, or solidified, and resold as scrap for recycling. This eliminates the chemical hazard while providing material for recycling; no dumping is required. Additionally, excess sheets of Acriglas (damaged sheets or ones that cannot be sold) have an aftermarket in recycling or as inexpensive, unusual sheet goods overseas.

It should be noted that many companies will group all their scraps together and send them out en masse; that is, all dissimilar polymer scrap being lumped together in the same containers. This doesn’t necessarily help the greenstream because at some point somebody is going to have to reprocess or re-sort it just to categorize it, thus reducing the overall value of the scrap. What’s more, contaminants will often end up in the scrap material which can ultimately pollute the green stream. Therefore, one of the most critical things a distributor, or anyone recycling materials, can do is categorize their scrap.