n July the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) submitted comments in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s request for public input on its Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution.
They were not filled with heart emojis.
“The plastic industry appreciates the opportunity to submit comments to the EPA. However, we are disappointed with the agency’s draft strategy,” said PLASTICS’ President and CEO Matt Seaholm. “The EPA was directed by Congress in an overwhelmingly bipartisan way to focus on post-consumer materials management and infrastructure, and instead the agency’s first stated objective in this strategy is to reduce the production of essential materials rather than address plastic waste.
“The strategy is not focused on improving infrastructure,” he said. “Meanwhile, the plastics industry continues to invest billions of dollars in innovations to expand recycling capacity. Understanding and addressing the essential nature of plastics and tackling environmental challenges should not be mutually exclusive. We don’t recycle enough, and we need to improve recycling rates in the U.S., period.”
Outpost of Innovation
In spring 2022 I had the opportunity for a glimpse into an optimistic future where plastics and recycling are concerned.
I was visiting Findlay, Ohio, yet again to announce the area’s status as the No. 1 micropolitan area in the nation for economic development projects. At the site of one of those projects, I got to sit down with Dan Maiorino, director of commercial operations for Valgroup’s film manufacturing operation. Formerly known as Valfilm, the site was purchased by Brazil-based Valgroup in 2015 from Dow Chemical.
Valgroup, launched by an Italian family in Brazil, today is one of the five largest consumers of resins and a major client of Braskem, Dow and others, producing 1.3 billion pounds a year from 40 manufacturing plants (25 of them in Brazil) that had a total area of 4.3 million sq. ft. in 2020, a number that’s since increased. Customers include Anheuser Busch InBev, Bunge, Cargill, Mars, TetraPak, Walmart and Pepsico.
The company’s sustainability bona fides are substantial. Valgroup was one of the first in the world to sign the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment to the New Plastics Economy. In Brazil, an agreement was signed to supply wind energy to half the company’s plants with a goal of reaching 100% renewables by 2030. In Findlay, the plant already operates with 70% wind power.
Valgroup makes a point of investing profits back in the business to the tune of $100 million a year in the company and equipment. “They don’t buy yachts and Ferraris,” Maiorino says. “They buy extrusion lines and get excited about it.”
The company was one of the first to do bottle-to-bottle recycling at its plants in Brazil and is one of the largest PET recyclers in the world — 220 million pounds a year — primarily at plants in Brazil, Spain and Mexico. “In the USA we do flexible films,” he says. “But all the other products we’d like to bring to the USA.
“Since my daughter was five she’s been telling me, ‘I don’t want you in plastics,’ ” Maiorino says. She’s 24 now. And he continues to tell her, “Think about the role of plastics in food preservation and medicines. In your lifetime we could be diverting most plastics from landfills for reuse and energy production.”
The medical side of things became apparent during the pandemic, when the operation shifted to producing film for medical gowns. Legacy accounts the company took over from Dow include films that line underwater sewage systems, lamination on foam products and what Maiorino calls “a very special film” for one of the siding companies: “The siding is painted and the film goes on while the paint is tacky. Once applied to the home, then you peel off the film but can’t take off the paint with it.”
‘We Have a Litter Problem’
“We are uniquely positioned to be a major recycler of plastics,” Maiorino says. “It’s in our DNA. We won’t only be a contributor, but a game changer in recycling. Plastics are not causing global warming — in plastics we have a litter problem. Sometimes we are the scapegoat, but fossil fuel burning is kind of where the problem is. We have game-changing technologies to fix that litter problem.”
An example of Valgroup innovation: reducing the thickness of the plastic packaging on multi-roll toilet paper packs by 37.5%, which allows total plastic use in the package to be reduced from 18 grams to 10.
The reason there’s a litter problem is the lack of value in flexible plastics. But chemical recycling can bring it back to oil. At one time the company was ready to invest $50 million in a bottle recycling plant in the Findlay area, but couldn’t find enough feedstock. That’s anathema to lifelong recyclers like Maiorino, who grew up the son of Italian immigrants in Montréal, where recycling is second nature.
“You need 8,000 tons a month of bottles to make it work,” Maiorino explains. “It’s spoken for — 80% probably are in the landfill. It’s too convenient to toss it, so this redirected our thinking to work with municipalities to propose projects to divert waste and utilize before heading to landfill.”
The next step? Expanding film recycling from post-industrial to post-consumer.
“We collect film bales, from customers or others, and we can work with many kinds of films,” he explains. “We send bales up a conveyor, friction wash it to remove contaminants, the dried clean film flakes are conveyed to an extrusion pelletizer and melted gradually under limited heat exposure, minimizing polymer degradation. That’s mechanical recycling to make a closed-loop PCR [post-consumer recycled] shrink and stretch film” approved for use with a major beverage company and now expanding out to many other customers. The chemical recycling process uses pyrolysis, mixing waste in a vessel and heating it to around 400 degrees centigrade in order to harvest pyoil, a desired feedstock for steam cracking. Maiorino says plans are under review for a pilot plant in the United States after an initial pilot in Brazil.
“You also get low-carbon fuels [gasoline] and kerosene,” he says. “Think about all your fleets of trucks or buses. Fleets could operate on fuel derived from waste rather than from products from the ground.”
Maintaining the Bubble
The company employs around 6,500 people, including 150 in Findlay.
“We’ve been trying to get to 180 the last three years,” Maiorino said. “We are leaning more heavily on automation, not because we want to get rid of people, but because we can’t find them.” Once residential development catches up with the region’s heady company expansion performance, he says, that may become an easier task.
The company works with Owens Community College and JobsOhio, among others, on certificate programs, and recruits from packaging specialist schools at universities. “We also go and do a booth at the local high schools and wrap the students in stretch film,” Maiorino says.
“A lot of people here for three years or more have a very specific skill set,” Maiorino says. “You could take it to any manufacturing operation. You’re running a full line with an HMI interface. What we teach in terms of blowing the bubble is an art as well as a science.”
The bubble? That’s a magical formation at the heart of the Valgroup operation, a continuous tube of thin, transparent plastic managed by materials and air flow in the middle of some very expensive machinery and equipment.
The employment pitch is eye-opening.
“Our goal is to give you the skill sets to be in extrusion operations,” Maiorino explains, which translates to between $70,000 and $80,000 a year at jobs across the country. “We want to get them to $30 to $40 an hour,” he says.
Valgroup’s stated global goals include carbon neutrality and recycling 100% of the volume produced by 2040. Ambitious and environmentally conscious young people looking to make a difference in the world may just find their ticket in maintaining the bubble and closing the circular economy in the world of Ohio plastics.