Megan Workman

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today magazine.

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Preserving polypropylene

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Preserve’s Gimme 5 program has partnered with consumer goods companies for years to increase polypropylene recycling. By Megan Workman

May 5, 2015

When Stonyfield Farm, Londonderry, New Hampshire, used a life cycle assessment tool 15 years ago to measure its sustainability standards, the consumer goods company might not have seen its eventual role in the recycling loop.

By switching its plastic yogurt cups from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) to polypropylene (PP), the consumer goods company realized it could make a container that weighed less and cost less to transport.

However, even with this sustainable switch, the company found itself in a strange situation, says John Lively, director of environment and materials for Preserve, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based consumer goods company and producer of household products made with recycled content.

“Although they were doing the right thing,” Lively says regarding Stonyfield’s overall environmental sustainability perspective, “they heard from a lot of their consumers that they couldn’t recycle the wide-mouth polypropylene cup.”

This consumer feedback led to a new partnership for Stonyfield when the company, along with Brita, teamed up with Preserve to serve as founding partners of Preserve’s Gimme 5 program.

Launched in 2009, the Gimme 5 program accepts items made from No. 5 plastic, i.e., PP, and transforms them into new products, including Preserve’s toothbrushes and razors. Preserve also recycles its products through the closed-loop program.

While PP is the most common plastic found in the U.S. waste stream, less than 2 percent of this material is recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Lively says he is optimistic this is changing thanks to increased participation, awareness and collection among consumers and developing end markets.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the company had collected No. 5 plastics locally and recycled them into its toothbrushes and razors prior to Gimme 5’s launch.

Lively explains that the closed-loop program emerged from consumers who were impressed by Preserve’s work to recycle yogurt cups into toothbrushes and razors but were concerned that they did not have access to PP recycling themselves.

Lively says, “The response we heard at first was fantastic, but the consumer said, ‘I can’t recycle my Stonyfield yogurt cups or hummus tub in my town. How can you help me?’”

He continues to say that it was that sentiment that led Preserve to focus on providing an answer to these consumers.

In 2005, retail collection efforts began at food cooperative Park Slope Food Coop., Brooklyn, New York. Stonyfield and Brita joined Preserve as founding partners in the program in 2008, and Gimme 5 was expanded to include other partners and Whole Foods Market, where most of the 300 Gimme 5 collection bins are located nationwide today.
 

Persisting problems

Collecting PP for recycling has been an ongoing problem. For years, most U.S. towns did not accept the material in their curbside collection programs. Cities that were collecting PP weren’t doing much with it other than baling it with other plastics to form a mixed plastics bale.

“In 2000 to 2005, the acceptance rate for No. 5 plastics in household or curbside recycling programs was miniscule,” Lively says. “It was essentially nonexistent, and postconsumer streams of polypropylene were extremely hard to find.” He notes that most streams of PP at the time were preconsumer and postindustrial.

As the Gimme 5 program progressed, so, too, did single-stream collection, Lively says. Single stream and the large wheeled collection carts typically used in these programs provided material recovery facilities (MRFs) with opportunities to recover more PP items, he says.

Greenie points

When it comes to recycling, simply saying a material will be diverted from a landfill sometimes is not enough. At least that is what John Lively, director of environment and materials for Waltham, Massachusetts-based Preserve, a sustainable consumer goods company and producer of 100-percent-recycled household products, has learned through his work.

Through Preserve’s Gimme 5 program, the company recycles No. 5 plastic—polypropylene (PP)—mostly in the form of yogurt cups, transforming this material into new products, including Preserve’s toothbrushes and razors.

Lively says consumers like knowing that PP materials collected through Gimme 5 will be recycled into new products instead of placing them in a recycling bin and not knowing what the end result will be.

That is one reason why Preserve teamed up in 2012 with Recyclebank, the New York City-based operator of an incentive-based recycling program. When participants recycle in store, they can access the “myGimme5” app on their cellphones and earn points on the spot. They also can retrieve points after mailing in PP materials and visiting www.mygimme5.com to record their efforts.

Recyclebank points can be redeemed for discounts at local and national businesses and for products from Preserve and its partners.

“We love what Recyclebank has done in incentivizing people to recycle,” Lively says.

“The access to polypropylene recycling has certainly expanded as single-stream recycling has expanded. It goes hand in hand,” Lively says.

“For consumers, the [Gimme 5] program is an opportunity to recycle items that they can’t recycle locally.”

He continues, “The promise we have is if No. 5 plastics go into the Gimme 5 bin, we are going to recycle them into a toothbrush or razor handle.”

Lively adds, “In our work we discovered that it doesn’t excite a consumer to say an item was recycled, but you can tell them you need to recycle it because we’re going to turn this into a new product.”

Without question, more PP yogurt cups are collected through Gimme 5 than any other type of PP packaging, Lively says. He calls the number of yogurt cup brands seen in Preserve’s bales—nearly 100 of them—tremendous and impressive.

Despite the advancement of single-stream collection and Gimme 5’s efforts, Lively says “there is a huge amount of polypropylene in the waste stream today available for recovery.”

He recognizes that the lack of a “healthy and vigorous” end market has been a real barrier for PP recovery.

Limited end markets reflect the low prices of virgin PP as well as the difficulty of actually producing an adequate postconsumer PP pellet. It’s not easy, Lively admits.

“It’s difficult to make a fantastic postconsumer polypropylene pellet that you can turn into a toothbrush or back into a yogurt cup,” he says.

Lively adds, “We need convenient solutions to recycle polypropylene, but we also need a good, healthy end market as well.”

While virgin PP can be inexpensive, Lively notes that compared with making goods with virgin plastics, Preserve’s process has about half the environmental impact: It uses 46 percent less energy and 54 percent less water and produces at least 64 percent fewer greenhouse gases, according to a life cycle assessment tool the company used to evaluate its environmental impact.
 

Made in the USA

Preserve’s process begins at Whole Foods Markets, where the Gimme 5 collection boxes are located. (Participants also can mail PP materials to Preserve’s sorting facility in Cortland, New York, if they do not live near a Gimme 5 collection location.)

The collected PP materials are backhauled on a Whole Foods truck to one of the company’s distribution centers, Lively explains. The blue bags of PP material are baled, and once a sufficient volume has been accumulated, the bales are sent to a sorting center in the Midwest.

A number of employees hand sort the PP by splitting open the bags, pulling out the difficult-to-recycle materials, such as the Brita water filters, and everything is then sent to a reprocessing facility.

While Lively says he is not permitted to speak on behalf of the reprocessing facility, he does say it is located in the center of the country and performs typical PP recycling, which involves grinding the material, friction washing it, running it through a sink-float tank, where the PP floats and is skimmed off the top, and finally baling the clean material in large Gaylord boxes.

“We then pool that material in a compounder closer to Massachusetts, and that compounder produces a recycled, compounded material with the Gimme 5 stream,” Lively says.

Lively notes that the toothbrushes (excluding the bristles) and razor handles (excluding the steel blades) are manufactured using the PP collected through Gimme 5. Preserve’s razor handles are molded in Massachusetts and assembled in upstate New York; its toothbrushes are molded and assembled in Michigan.

Lively says Preserve prefers to work with smaller MRFs as “the large automated MRFs with the moving conveyor belts don’t really work for” the company since it is focused on hand sorting materials. Preserve has a partnership with a small MRF in Watertown, Minnesota.
 

Partnering for progress

Lively acknowledges how important partnerships are to the success of the Gimme 5 program.

“They are critical,” Lively says of Preserve’s partners in the Gimme 5 program. “Whole Foods Market has been absolutely extraordinary to help run this program as it is a lot of time and effort on their part.

“We couldn’t do it without their help,” he continues.

Some companies, such as Burt’s Bees and Organic Valley, have joined as a supporting partner for a year or so and have “helped move this forward” but “started scratching their heads as they didn’t have a lot of polypropylene material as waste,” Lively says.

Today’s Gimme 5 partners include Stonyfield, Whole Foods, Brita, Plum Organics and Berry Plastics.

Ideal partners for the program include companies with PP recycling challenges, Lively says.

Brita, with North American headquarters in Oakland, California, was one of those companies, says David Kargas, associate director of public relations for Brita.

Kargas says Brita approached Preserve to help recycle its filters. Not only has the recycling of Brita’s filters increased, but all of its pitcher and bottle filters can now be recycled in the U.S., which wasn’t possible before Gimme 5, Kargas states.

“Before the Gimme 5 program, Brita’s filters were not accepted in the USA for recycling on a national scale because of the mixed materials—the filter media and polypropylene. This has changed,” Kargas says. “Preserve’s Gimme 5 opens the filters, uses the media for energy and recycles the polypropylene into new products.”

Partners are encouraged to promote their involvement in Gimme 5, which helps to increase program awareness, another important outcome, Lively suggests.

He observes, “Barry Plastics is one of the largest users of polypropylene in the world, and one of the things they wanted to do was very publicly say that they take recycling seriously, and they wanted a great solution, so they partnered with Preserve for Gimme 5.”

Subsequently, the Gimme 5 program is serving as a platform illustrating that the recycling of No. 5 plastic can be done, Lively says.

“To make any advancement in recycling, there needs to be folks out there who are willing to pioneer and step up into the program doing something others would say would be great,” Lively says.

He continues, “The Gimme 5 program and our closed-loop efforts are efforts to inspire folks that this can be done and hold up for them examples of where we would all like to head.”



The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at mworkman@gie.net.

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