Going Gray

Features - Plastics

Hilex Poly continues to emphasize recycled content plastic bag manufacturing.

March 12, 2013
DeAnne Toto

As the Hartsville, S.C.-based manufacturer and closed-loop recycler of plastic bags, Hilex Poly, likes to say, “Gray is the new green.”

The gray at hand, and often in hand, refers to plastic shopping bags made from recycled resin recovered from used bags and other polyethylene (PE) films. These recycled-content bags are typically gray, buff or blue, with Hilex noting that the darker the bag, the more recycled content it contains. For example, the company’s gray bags contain nearly 35 percent recycled content, while its blue bags contain more than 30 percent postconsumer material.

Hilex sells its finished plastic bags largely to grocery, retail, pharmacy and convenience stores as well as to restaurants. The company also supplies extruded films for consumer and industrial applications.

Hilex Poly describes itself as the largest U.S. manufacturer and closed-loop recycler of plastic bags, employing more than 1,200 people across eight plastic retail carry-out bag facilities, one packaging films facility and one recycling facility, which is in North Vernon, Ind. In addition to its Hartsville and North Vernon locations, the company has facilities in Milesburg, Pa.; Richmond, Va.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Garland, Farmers Branch and Carrollton, Texas; Jerome, Idaho; and St. Louis.

“In 2005 Hilex opened the nation’s first and largest cradle-to-cradle recycling facility specifically dedicated to reprocessing used plastic bags and wraps,” says Mark Daniels, senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Hilex Poly. “Hilex developed the technology to make plastic bag recycling a reality in the United States and has placed more than 30,000 recycling bins around the country to date.”

Growing Grayer

Daniels says Hilex used more than 35 million pounds of postconsumer plastic in its manufacturing process in 2012. This recycled resin was obtained through the company’s own recycling facility as well as through partnerships with several other recyclers, who densify and reprocess material for Hilex. In 2005 Hilex recycled 3 million pounds of postconsumer plastic. By the end of 2013, Daniels says he expects that number to be nearly 45 million pounds. The company has a goal to increase the recycled content in its bags to 40 percent by 2015, and Daniels says Hilex definitely will meet that goal.

Hilex Poly Brings Recycling to College Campus

Hartsville, S.C.-based Hilex Poly has announced a partnership with the College of Southern Idaho (CSI), Twin Falls, Idaho, to recycle plastic bags. Through the partnership, Hilex Poly has provided the college with bins for collecting plastic bags for recycling.

“We will have collection receptacles in all of our buildings on campus,” CSI Athletic Director Joel Bate says. “This will be part of our overall mission within the college to help the community in eliminating waste and ‘closing the loop.’”

Hilex Poly’s partnership with CSI was kicked off at the school’s men’s basketball tournament in the fall of 2012. During the tournament, CSI fans could gain admission to the game by bringing in a plastic bag containing at least 10 other recyclable plastic bags.

According to the company, its partnership with CSI has been well-received, given that Hilex’ Jerome, Idaho, plant employs many people in the Magic Valley, the region in south-central Idaho consisting of Blaine, Camas, Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties.

“The recycling effort of this company is tremendous,” Bate says of Hilex. “This will allow us to help them get out the message on how to recycle bags, where to take the product and what is done with the product in the recycling effort.”

Hilex Poly also serves as the sponsor of the school’s men’s basketball tournament, the Hilex Poly Invitational.

Through its Bag-2-Bag program, Hilex Poly has more than 30,000 recycling containers in place at retail partners throughout the country. The collected plastics, which include shopping bags, dry cleaning bags, sandwich bags and plastic pallet film, are transported via truck to various distribution centers, where they are baled before being transported to the company’s North Vernon recycling plant. Daniels says Hilex collects 80,000 pounds of material daily.

When this material arrives at Hilex’ North Vernon recycling facility, Daniels says workers sort out contaminants, such as strapping, paper, bottles and cans and, at times, even car keys. Material that is collected through municipal recycling programs is washed and dried before being shredded and extruded into pellets, while the material collected through the company’s Bag-2-Bag program does not need to undergo the washing step.

Daniels says the Bag-2-Bag material has a yield of 90 percent or better, while the yield from material collected through single-stream curbside programs can be less than 50 percent. “That is why we have been so aggressive in building the infrastructure with retailers,” he adds.

Hilex does not need to sort HDPE (high-density polyethylene) from LDPE (low-density polyethylene) or LLDPE (liner low-density polyethylene) prior to reprocessing. “We can put it all together as long as its polyethylene,” Daniels says.

Hilex welcomes plastic films beyond retail bags because of the high reuse rate for plastic bags. Many of these secondary uses—for disposing of pet waste or as trash-can liners, for example—means nearly 65 percent of bags are unavailable for recycling, Daniels says.

Despite this loss of material, Hilex Poly has been able to boost its recycled content year over year. “Each year we are able to see an increase in the recycled content in plastic bags due to greater recycling,” he says. “That field is growing for Hilex, and market conditions look good for us.”

To keep up with the volume of incoming material, Hilex’ recycling plant runs two 12-hour shifts seven days per week, Daniels says.

“We are able to recycle used bags and films though the entire supply chain at a cost competitive to virgin resin,” he adds.

Promoting Recyclability

According to the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents American plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers, plastic bags offer a number of advantages over the alternative paper bag, including:

  • Generating 80 percent less waste;
  • Generating 50 percent of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of composted paper bags; and
  • Consuming less than 4 percent of the water needed to make paper bags.

While Hilex Poly and Daniels, who serves as chairman of the APBA and sits on the board of directors for the California Extrusion Film and Convertors Association, the Florida Retail Federation and the Texas Retail Association, agree with these merits, some legislators and environmental groups have singled out plastic bags, banning their use in certain communities.

“As with [2012], we expect that some select elected officials in a few states may propose regulations on plastic bags,” Daniels says. However, he points out that while nearly 42 percent of municipalities have recycling legislation in place for plastic bags, less than 2 percent have placed restrictions on their use.

“In the past, we have been successful in educating those in office that plastic bag recycling is working for the environment and that, because plastic bags make up only a fraction of a percent of the litter stream, banning them will not have an impact,” Daniels says. “Most officials have been receptive at the state level and understand that plastic bags have a lower carbon footprint than any alternative and that plastic bags make grocery shopping a sanitary way to transport items from meats to vegetables.”

Daniels adds that public education is a key component in increasing recycling and he says he has seen it work across the U.S. It’s also necessary if Hilex Poly is going to meet its goal of increasing the recycled content in the bags it manufactures.

“Hilex is driven to expand our postconsumer recycling capacity of bags and wraps and continue our year-over-year advancements of elevating recycling resins in our manufacturing process,” Daniels says. “Our R&D department continually investigates new product development that supports our technological capabilities and innovative philosophy.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at dtoto@gie.net.