Companies share challenges of ‘closed-loop’ manufacturing

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Speakers discussed the importance of sustainable materials management in an evolving and challenging recycling and packaging environment. Courtesy Katy Batdorff

A pair of local company representatives recently shared creative solutions they are implementing for waste amid the global recycling market crisis.

Jonathan Padnos, president and CEO of Holland-based recycling and scrap management company Padnos, and Brian Miller, regional sales manager at Cascade Township-based Cascade Engineering, spoke at the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum’s March 9 lunch, “Closed Loops and Sustainable Materials Management” at Aquinas College’s new Albertus Magnus Hall of Science.

Both speakers discussed the importance of sustainable materials management in an evolving and challenging recycling and packaging environment, noting how they are attempting to find solutions and markets for post-consumer content.

Cascade Engineering’s efforts

Miller spoke first, noting his business unit at Cascade Engineering — Cascade Cart Solutions — recently began a new circular economy initiative that will utilize waste materials collected from its recycling industry customers in curbside collection carts.

As recycling market conditions have begun to deteriorate following China’s National Sword policy enacted in 2018 — which restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper and most plastics — the U.S. has faced the “perfect storm” in which American recycling rates are at an all-time high, but the nation’s ability to dispose of the materials has “largely evaporated,” Miller said.

This has caused an influx of millions of pounds of recyclables ending up in landfills and a “significant amount” of baled recyclables piled up waiting for a feasible economic solution for disposing of them — not to mention a 30% to 40% negative impact on Cascade’s bottom line.

For the past 15-20 years, Cascade has run a cart buyback program in which its customers such as Waste Management (WM), Republic and other trash companies can sell back the carts they bought from Cascade at the end of their lifecycle, and Cascade grinds them up into plastic flakes and reuses them in the manufacture of new injection-molded carts.

But as the recycling market is drying up and many municipalities are canceling recycling programs altogether, there’s a question of what to do with household recyclables to divert them from landfills.

Cascade — a certified benefit corporation (B Corp) that focuses on the triple bottom line of people, planet and profits — has been brainstorming ways for the past 18 months to create domestic demand for the plastics collected curbside.

“We came up with a program called ‘EUCHR’ — expanded utilization of curbside household recyclables — and we embarked on it having no clue what we were going to do trying to figure this out,” Miller said.

Working with The Recycling Partnership, WM and KW Plastics — a Troy, Alabama-based plastics reclaimer/recycler where much of the curbside plastics in the U.S. are sent to be processed — Cascade Carts is producing a new EcoCart, which the company says is the first roll cart to incorporate curbside household plastics.

Under the EUCHR program, WM collects the materials curbside and brings them to a facility to be separated, then the plastics are baled and sold to KW Plastics, which converts them into pelletized resin, which Cascade then buys to manufacture new refuse and recycling carts made of 10% post-consumer curbside recycled (PCCR) content.

The carts are currently offered only in black, but Cascade is working out the bugs to produce them in a spectrum of colors so that waste management companies can brand them according to their existing color schemes.

“We’re trying to create demand one cart at a time,” Miller said. “I’ve got six major competitors nationwide, and they’re going to be on this … and that’s a good thing.”

Cascade Carts first presented its EUCHR program at a 2019 Michigan Recycling Coalition Conference Lunch and Learn with 35 plant engineers from General Motors.

Working in concert with the eight other Cascade business units, Miller said the hope is to apply the EUCHR approach to other markets, including automotive/electrified vehicle and furniture.

To help move the needle forward in the recycling market, The Recycling Partnership is now requiring the use of PCCR in carts for municipalities looking to obtain grant funding for their recycling programs.

Cascade Engineering also is looking into other creative solutions for waste, launching trials of the technology from Kibbutz Tze’Elim, Israel-based UBQ Materials, in which unsorted household waste is converted into sustainable bio-based pellets for use in manufacturing applications such as pallets, carts, waste bins, construction materials, furniture, and flower pots and planters.

Padnos’s programs

Via 25 locations in Michigan and northern Indiana, the fourth-generation family-owned company Padnos recycles about 3 billion pounds of paper, plastic, metal and electronics materials per year, according to its president and CEO, who joined the company in 2011.

Padnos said he doesn’t use the phrase “changing the world” when describing Padnos’s work, but rather “making a positive impact,” which he sees as a more measurable and attainable goal.

The company strives to make PCR materials more valuable by “leveraging its diverse processing equipment with lots of capacity,” Padnos said.

“There are recycling companies out there that are way larger than Padnos is. I don’t know of many that have their hands in as many (types of) processing equipment as we do. If it’s tough and complicated, we’re passionate about it, and we want to do it,” he said.

The company’s capabilities and activities include shredding, shearing and sorting materials manually, electromechanically, electromagnetically and by X-ray; forming briquettes; baling metal and paper; chopping wire; repurposing electronics; fabricating custom equipment; and shredding, grinding, sorting by density, re-manufacturing, extruding, blending and injection-molding plastic to turn it into resin pellets.

The term “closed-loop” manufacturing comes into play at Padnos because many of the materials the company collects from manufacturing customers go right back into producing the same types of parts they came from that were at the end of their lifecycle.

One of Padnos’s current focuses is on volume reduction of materials in order to make smaller bales, ergo less shipping needs to happen, and the company’s carbon footprint is reduced. This is done through choppers, densifiers, grinders and compacters.

Padnos also uses perforators to convert cardboard boxes into compostable packing materials, in order to reduce the demand for/production of expanded polystyrene (EPS, which is often referred to by the trademarked name, Styrofoam), a material that is less sustainable because it is not commonly recycled. 

Kari Bliss, who works in customer experience and sustainability at Padnos, said polystyrene can indeed be recycled, but it’s important to have it densified at the source — at the company that’s generating the waste — instead of putting it on a truck where it takes up space at light volumes and travels hundreds of miles to be heated or compressed into bricks. She said densifiers start at about $25,000, and companies that want to “make better decisions over time” could consider adding a separate line item to their budgets for that function to reduce their carbon impact.

To address the question of generating financial incentives for recycling, Padnos said the company is setting aside 20,000 square feet of space at its main facility to create a new showroom called “Sustainability City.” It will display different types of processing equipment, and Padnos hopes the space will germinate conversations and partnerships that lead to solutions in the marketplace.

On April 15, Padnos will host the Supply Chain Management Council of The Right Place for a tour of the showroom and a presentation of ideas and possibilities.

“We can’t be in this journey by ourselves. We have to manage our dependencies, and we know that those dependencies are in different areas of our company,” Padnos said.

“There’s more commitment (to closed-loop systems) today than there was a year ago, and that is exciting. This is my call out to everybody in your company to see where this has been working for us way better than others, even in the examples that I gave earlier, when I showed where we’re closing the loop, where circular economy is happening.

“When we have cross-functional teams working with other cross-functional teams, that’s when it’s working … that’s when we see success.”

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