Perfecting recycled plastic

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Evergreen Plastics, Clyde, Ohio, is focusing on growing to meet new demands for rPET, including food-grade applications.

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January 24, 2020

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Evergreen Plastics Ltd., Clyde, Ohio, began operations as the plastics recycling division of Polychem LLC, Mentor, Ohio, in 1998. Polychem is one of the world’s largest producers of plastic strapping. The company started Evergreen to develop a raw material source for its polyethylene terephthalate (PET) strapping.

Greg Johnson, vice president of operations at Evergreen Plastics, says Polychem and Evergreen are vertically integrated. Evergreen recycles curbside-collected PET—primarily soft drink and water bottles—to produce recycled PET (rPET) flakes and pellets. Polychem uses recycled plastic from Evergreen to produce strapping, which is made of 100-percent- recycled materials.

Johnson
Photo by Mark Campbell Productions

“We buy postconsumer baled bottles. We sort, grind and wash them, and then we use the material—the ground flake—to produce the strapping,” Johnson says.

Since Evergreen was established, it has tripled in size. Johnson says the company started with 35 employees and a 75,000-square-foot facility in 1998. Today, it has about 200 employees and a 240,000-square-foot facility.

Evergreen installed its first PET strapping line in 1999 and expanded its PET strapping capacity in 2005. Johnson says Evergreen primarily uses blue and green PET bottles to produce strapping. “For many recyclers, that’s not a primary stream of material. For us, that’s very much our primary stream.”

In addition to blue and green bottles, Evergreen also processes clear PET bottles. Some of the recycled clear bottles are used to produce strapping, and some are used to produce food-grade rPET pellets or flakes. Johnson says the company uses equipment that has a nonobjection letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that allows Evergreen to sell its rPET for use in food-grade applications. The company uses two Erema systems—a Vacurema Advanced extrusion system it installed in 2004 and a Vacurema Prime extrusion system it installed in 2011—to create food-grade pellets.

According to Erema, which is based in Austria, all of its Vacurema systems—Basic, Advanced and Prime—decontaminate PET.

Johnson says Erema’s technology has worked well for Evergreen’s operations over the years.

“We partnered with Erema from the beginning and stuck with them,” he adds. “There are other equipment manufacturers, but we believe Erema has some of the best technology out there because of the quality of the equipment and the quality product that it produces.”

Strive for sustainability

Evergreen’s ownership changed when Sterling Group, a private equity company headquartered in Houston, acquired Polychem last March. However, Johnson says operations have remained the same.

He adds that the biggest change is that Sterling Group has been encouraging Evergreen and Polychem to grow. Johnson says growth has been a focus at Evergreen with the increasing number of sustainability commitments being made by major consumer brand companies.

“The growth we’re recognizing has more to do with sustainability initiatives and the push around plastics recycling and recycled content within products that contain PET,” he says. “What’s driving that growth is the brand sustainability initiatives. That’s still in the infancy stages, but it’s starting to ramp up.”

“Being closed loop is something we’ve done since day one. … That’s been our business plan for more than 20 years.” – Greg Johnson, vice president of operations, Evergreen Plastics

Michael J. Sandoval, a sales and procurement manager at Evergreen Plastics, spoke on a panel discussion during Recycling Today Events’ 2019 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference, which took place in October in Chicago. In the session “Hungry for More Plastics,” he reported on sustainability commitments that offer optimism for recyclers like Evergreen.

For instance, Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, reported plans in 2018 to create packaging that contains at least 50 percent recycled material by 2030. In October 2018, PepsiCo. Inc., Purchase, New York, announced its goal to use 25 percent recycled content in its plastic packaging by 2025. Nestlé Waters North America, Stamford, Connecticut, announced plans to increase recycled content in its PET water bottles in the U.S. to 50 percent by 2025.

“Brands are committing to using more recycled content in their packaging,” Sandoval said at the conference. “This has potential—this is going to force us to recycle more. Evergreen is willing to do its part.”

Although Sandoval said there is concern that recycling rates are too low to meet some of these brands’ 2025 and 2030 sustainability commitments, he added, “Where there’s demand, supply will follow.”

Johnson says Evergreen is hopeful about these commitments and wants to be able to grow its business by helping to meet these new goals. He says the company is well-positioned to do that as it’s been operating as a closed-loop business for two decades. “Being closed loop is something we’ve done since day one,” he says. “We buy strap, we process strap and we turn it right back into strap. We take bottles and turn them into raw materials so they can make more bottles. That’s been our business plan for more than 20 years.”

Regarding recycled-content commitments from brands, “This is an opportunity for us,” Sandoval said during the Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference session. “We’re going to improve our current systems and maximize our throughput. We’re investigating new equipment and additional pellet capacity. There is more future demand, so for us, we need to increase our capacity as well.”

Photo by Megan Smalley

Ensuring efficiency

As Evergreen Plastics expands its pellet production capacity, it also is considering adding new equipment. Evergreen certainly has the space to grow at its site in Clyde. Johnson says the site is about 37.5 acres, and the company still has about 21 acres it can develop.

While Johnson can’t share what equipment the company is looking to add in the future, Evergreen has made some improvements to equipment in recent years. In the spring of 2018, Evergreen added an Erema Laserfilter to its Vacurema Advanced System. Johnson says the Laserfilter produces a more consistent product than traditional backflushing filtration equipment. He adds that the machine’s extruder has been running more smoothly since the addition of the Laserfilter.

“We were looking for more consistent extruder performance, less variation in pressures and other parameters on the line while it’s running,” Johnson says. “The older backflushing technology created some of those inconsistencies. [The Laserfilter] is a more continuous melt filter that allows you to run higher levels of contamination and still achieve better, more consistent running parameters.”

Johnson says Evergreen benefits from its involvement in industry associations, including the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR)—he is a member of the APR PET Technical Committee—and NAPCOR (National Association for PET Container Resources). “Both groups are great resources for keeping up with industry news,” he says. “Having that voice is helpful. They do a great job taking feedback from us and working with brands to make improvements.”

Through modern equipment and knowledge gained from industry involvement, Evergreen plans to grow its ability to meet new rPET demands.

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