Taking a fresh approach

Features - Plastics Recycling magazine | Cover Story

Avangard Innovative, headquartered in Houston, expands its operations by producing recycled LDPE pellets.

May 22, 2017

Avangard Innovative handles a variety of material, including strapping. The company will use some of the LDPE material it handles to produce recycled pellets at a new operation that is scheduled to open later this summer. Image: Craig Hartley

Houston-based recycler Avangard Innovative continues to find new material streams to tackle. Through its Natura Zero Program, the company works with Fortune 500 companies to identify and efficiently collect clients’ recyclables; it also collaborates with them to reduce or reclaim spent resources in daily operations.

In addition to the Natura Zero Program, Avangard manufactures its own line of recycling equipment, including foam densifiers, compactors and balers, featuring technology designed to help track bale composition and quality. The company also uses software to help its clients track their recycling efforts.

Avangard is adding the production of recycled low-density polyethylene (LDPE) pellets to its capabilities. Film recovered from its clients in the retail sector will provide the raw material.

A little history

“Avangard Innovative started as a plastics recycling company and evolved into a waste- and recycling-optimization company using technology,” CEO Rick Perez says.

“I started the company with a phone and fax at my parents’ house with $1,000 back when recycling was not so sexy and there was really not a big focus on it at all,” he says. At its founding in 1986, the company was known as Innovative Commodities Group. In late 2006, it merged with Avangard Industries Ltd., another plastics recycling, processing and trading company headquartered in Houston, to form Avangard Innovative.

“We were fortunate to be able to grow the business over 30 years, and I think we have made some great strides in this field,” Perez says.

Back to its roots

With the announcement of its new LDPE recycling facility, Avangard is capitalizing on a material stream that makes up a good deal of the recyclables it handles for its clients through the Natura Zero Program.

“We are doing the same thing we did in the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) market,” Perez says of Avangard’s move to produce postconsumer recycled (PCR) LDPE pellets. He’s referring to the company’s role in the formation of PetStar, Toluca, Mexico, which Perez describes as “one of the largest postconsumer resin plants in the world.” PetStar recycles PET bottles, supplying its food-contact-grade resin to Coca-Cola bottlers throughout Mexico.

“I started the company with a phone and fax at my parents’ house with $1,000 back when recycling was not so sexy and there was really not a big focus on it at all.” – Avangard Innovative CEO Rick Perez

Avangard is investing $10 million to build the facility that will convert LDPE film into high-quality PCR resin to be used in film production. The investment includes the building, equipment and working capital for the operation, which will be located on property Avangard already owns in Houston, says Jon Stephens, the company’s executive vice president.

“With our past success in the PCR PET recycle streams, we are very excited about this new venture,” Perez said when the company first announced its plans in March. “With this new LDPE plant, we can vertically integrate and utilize one of the largest streams of material we manage today.”

The company says it manages approximately 100 million pounds of LDPE film scrap annually from the retail sector and other generators throughout the Americas. This material stream is the third-largest Avangard handles, the largest being corrugated containers, followed by organic materials.

“Approximately 50 percent of our LDPE scrap will flow through the new facility,” Stephens says, adding that the company will sell the balance of the material to its current markets.

Regarding the potential impact of Avangard’s new venture on the existing buyers of its recovered film, Stephens says, “We feel there will be a minimal impact to preprocessors we are currently supplying recovered material to as we continue to increase the volume we manage.”

Perez says the move represents the company’s evolution from reclaiming LDPE film to manufacturing a value-added product. He says Avangard will be working with brand owners and all the other links in the supply chain to ensure the material can be reused.

Rick Perez holds ground HDPE that was recovered for recycling at an Avangard Innovative environmental partner. Image: Craig Hartley

“The key is making sure the end of life is not the end of life,” he says. “We bring it right back in. But it has got to be at the right spec so the value continues to stay.”

Avangard says it has researched the various supply streams and identified those that will produce PCR resin that can meet the critical properties needed for film applications.

Strategic partnerships and new technology will guarantee the highest-quality PCR resin in the marketplace, the company says. The plant will use optical sorting technology from MSS Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, and two recoSTAR 165 C-Vac extruders from Vienna-based Starlinger.

Stephens says the MSS optical sorters will help the company remove contamination more efficiently. “Some of the benefits this equipment offers are removing more contamination upfront [and] providing less pressure on filtration,” he says. “We’ll end up with better color and quality.”

The plant will create approximately 30 jobs and operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week, with Phase 1 production expected to begin in July, Perez says.

“We expect to produce roughly 2 million pounds per month in Phase 1,” Stephens says.

Avangard plans for the second line to be operating by September, Perez says. At that point, the plant’s total production capacity will be 48 million pounds annually.

The company has been working with potential consumers of its postconsumer LDPE resin. “We are pleased to have a lineup of consumers at this point in time and are continuing to develop new applications that we’re currently in the trial phase of,” Stephens says.

Avangard may not stop with LDPE pellet production. Stephens says the company is performing trials on a mixture of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and LDPE bags.

The circular approach

Enabling and supporting the circular economy is the goal of Avangard’s overall operation, Perez says. However, in the plastics sector in particular, he says, it’s important to be able to meet certain quality standards.

“The key thing with our Natura Zero Program is that we can measure the quality of every bale that is coming into our facility.” – Rick Perez

Perez says Avangard facilitates this goal by implementing source-separated collection programs with its clients. The company’s Natura Zero Program helps clients achieve their zero-waste initiatives by identifying recyclables, tracking results and creating additional or enhanced revenue streams.

“We are reducing their waste cost and increasing the value of that commodity, creating a savings and a revenue source at the same time,” he says. “Within our network of partners, we can facilitate and consolidate and make valuable commodities for them.”

Technology plays a key role in Avangard’s Natura Zero Program. This starts at the point of generation with equipment, such as balers and compactors, that includes Smart Technology, which the company describes as scalable “state-of-the-art” automation that allows it to track a company’s real-time diversion progress. Avangard measures recyclables in waste through its Capture Percentage Rate Index. More recyclables create more revenue and lower waste costs, the company says.

Perez says Natura Smart Technology allows it to determine bale quality before bales leave its partners’ facilities. When a bale is created, Avangard is notified as to the composition of the bale and its weight. The company also receives a photo of the bale, which is identified by a bar code. This allows quality issues to be addressed before the material is shipped. This ability will benefit the company’s new LDPE pellet-manufacturing operation. Perez says the program also benefits other companies it supplies with recyclables.

“The key thing with our Natura Zero program is that we can measure the quality of every bale that is coming into our facility,” he says of the LDPE film recycling operation. “No one has ever had that before. Because we can control quality coming in, we will have minimum yield loss.”

Using Natura Smart Technology, “buyers can see material before they buy it,” he says. This is true of Avangard’s LDPE recycling operation as well as other recyclers and consumers the company supplies. This helps to ensure generators are getting the most for their recyclables and buyers are operating as efficiently as possible, Perez says.

When it comes to Avangard’s clients, there is no such thing as typical. However, large companies with multiple locations make up a sizable portion of its clients, Perez says. Generation volumes also run the gamut. In 2016, Avangard was responsible for diverting 1 billion pounds of material from landfill for its clients. ?In one case, Avangard worked with a $20-billion grocer to address the issue of used bags at its 400 stores. By teaching store employees about the value of recycling, creating locations for customers to return bags and providing equipment, Avangard helped its client achieve a 40 percent increase in recycling revenue.

A collaborative effort

Perez says he is encouraged by the level of collaboration he’s seeing to address the challenges associated with plastics recycling and by the amount of capital flowing toward the sector.

Image: Craig Hartley

“You have to work the whole supply chain as one,” he says, adding that retailers, brand owners and processors must all work together to solve issues surrounding plastics recycling.

Perez says he believes that if the industry takes a collaborative approach, everyone wins. This is true even among reprocessing companies that may view other reprocessing companies as competitors, he says.

The recycling part of the supply chain is more collaborative than it has been in the past, he says, thanks in part to the work of associations such as the Plastics Industry Association and the Association of Plastic Recyclers.

“The industry is growing,” Perez says. “Recycling is the right thing to do.”

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

For more information: Avangard Innovative, www.avaicg.com, 281-582-0700