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The Bottom Line on Sustainability

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Manufacturers’ cache of clean material for recycling usually dwarfs that of the average household or office, making them coveted sources for sales to a recycler. Any money that results from the sale typically would be used to chip away at the makers’ waste disposal bill.

“I find it’s actually more likely in those types of facilities than in a standard office environment,” says Noelle Bugaj, Destination Zero program manager for zero waste consultants Ingenium Group LLC, Escondido, Calif. “(They’re) getting that material out of the landfill, out of the rolloff, and either working with suppliers who have a take-back program or are separating materials out and getting a kickback.”

An Ingenium client, Heath Ceramics, San Francisco, has found innovative ways to recycle. The tile and homewares maker donates overrun tiles to art nonprofits, turns its used nitrile gloves into plastic furniture, adds fired clay waste to concrete and composts unusable clay, according to its website. As a result of these and other efforts, such as returning packaging materials to vendors, including the foam used to package kiln cones, Heath’s waste diversion from the landfill is 86% for 2023, after hovering around 81% for the last two years.

The ceramics maker is just one of many manufacturers across the country with sustainability goals helped along by recycling. They’re either reusing processing waste in-house or sending it to a recycler.

While Heath is a small manufacturer, medium and large companies have also committed to recycling. For example, L’Oreal Groupe has advertised that by 2030, 100% of water used in its manufacturing processes will be re-purposed in a loop. Currently, five of its factories are “waterloop,” meaning that all the industrial water is retreated, recycled and reused in a loop, according to Loreal’s website. Another manufacturer, Pratt Industries, also likes to advertise its recycling efforts. Pratt is the world’s largest, privately held producer of 100% recycled container board, the company boasts.

Recycling by manufacturers can help save energy costs, according to the National Institutes of Health, and reduce the need for raw materials, according to Recycle Now. The “third R”—as in reduce, reuse, recycle—also raises a company’s “sustainability profile,” a relatively recent societal phenomenon that may make a company’s services or products more desirable, particularly as the effects of climate change become more frequent and widespread. This was borne out by a 2020 survey conducted by the National Retail Federation and IBM. In the survey, nearly six in 10 consumers queried said they are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. For those who say reducing environmental impact is “very/extremely important,” more than seven in 10 would pay an average premium of 35% for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible.

New Rules Govern Old Habits

Currently, programs like Destination Zero are voluntary, although regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission have proposed requiring climate-related disclosures in initial filings and annual reports.

“I’d say the primary motivation (for manufacturers to recycle) is operational efficiency and reducing cost,” says J.D. Lindeberg, president of Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), a sustainable materials management company in Ann Arbor, Mich. “You’re starting to see motivation to go further because of corporate sustainability goals and disclosure requirements put forward by the SEC. You’re going to see more of that, but I would still say the primary driver is if they’re spending a million dollars on waste, they’d like to spend half a million because if you reduce the waste costs, it goes right to the bottom line.”

Ingenium’s program aligns with the Green Business Certification Inc.’s (GBCI) TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) certification, offering a comprehensive approach to achieving zero waste. GBCI is the same organization that confers LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

LEED certification is for the sustainability of the built environment, while TRUE is about materials, products, purchasing, how materials are being used at a site and, ultimately, the disposal of those materials, according to Bugaj.

Ingenium operations employees pick up waste and transport it to the appropriate waste facility, whether for recycling, disposal or incineration. (Provided by Ingenium)

“I think that because the GBCI is a well-known organization that has LEED in its wheelhouse, and that has become the industry standard, that it is possible that TRUE becomes the industry standard,” Bugaj says. “They have the framework and they know how to grow their certification and offerings to ensure that it’s all encompassing. We look at a lot of different aspects that some people may not even realize are related to waste and waste reduction.”

There are, however, other noteworthy certifications:

  • Underwriters Laboratories’ Landfill Waste Diversion Validation
  • Carbon Trust’s Carbon Trust Standard
  • Zero Waste International Alliance’s Zero Waste Business Certification

There currently are no mandatory certifications for consultants such as Ingenium and RRS, but Lindeberg sees one emerging from one of the initiators of LEED. It’s called Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Performance, or SWEEP.

“The idea is to provide an opportunity for staff at local governments and waste management service providers and facilities to have a credential and a common understanding of what we’re doing,” Lindeberg says.

Packaging King in Industrial Recycling

In the traditional materials settings—such as metal, paper and plastic—post-industrial waste tends to be “very pure,” Lindeberg says. “And the smart industries that are paying attention to their cost almost always put that material, if at all possible, right back into their production facility as a raw material.”

J.D. Lindeberg, president of Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), a sustainable materials management company, said manufacturers are motivated to recycle for operational efficiency and reducing cost. (Provided by RRS)

But manufacturers collect a lot of outside packaging waste that doesn’t come from their processes. In such cases, a company as large as a vehicle manufacturer most likely would use the services of a resource manager. It’s the job of the resource manager to make sure all waste gets into the proper stream, and present the client with one bill.

“A car assembly plant would have a different set of waste streams, but those are mostly packaging,” Lindeberg notes. “And those are mostly specialty packaging. It could be pallets, it could be cardboard, it could be reusable containers that might hold a series of windshields. And the reusable containers are designed in such a way to make sure the underlying product is kept in pristine condition.”

In the current market, cardboard is the No. 1 material for recycling for manufacturers, says David Fahrion, president of Waste Control Inc. (WCI), Costa Mesa, Calif., a commercial waste and recycling consulting services company. Fahrion knows what’s fodder for recycling and what’s going to a landfill because his company conducts audits of a manufacturer’s waste, either through photographs or by sorting through the actual waste.

“The other thing we get with manufacturers is a lot of different plastics, at least in the California market,” Fahrion says.

Maybe the most common plastic is film, the clingy, flexible material that’s wrapped around items on a pallet to protect them and keep them in place, adds Bruce Welch, WCI’s general manager.

One of WCI’s clients, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, generated large volumes of different types of plastics, just as Fahrion described. So the waste control company located a specialty baler with three compartments for the client to purchase. Plastic film doesn’t weigh much, but unbaled or uncompacted, it has a lot of volume.

“It made a huge difference in their trash, because rather than every day we got it (trash pickup) down to two days a week,” Welch explains. “The extra haul really was costly, so once we were able to pull that out, we reduced their trash cost by 43% and they got the revenue coming back to those bales.”

In terms of revenue, the market to sell recyclables is much like the stock market with its price fluctuations, Fahrion says. He’s seen cardboard sell for as high as $140 per ton, and as low as $30 a ton. Some plastics can be valued at $700 a ton, or as low as $100.

“In our experience, most of those two products that we see in the manufacturing arena (cardboard and plastic), typically have a positive value,” Fahrion says. “Some of the glasses we move will be a negative value, but it’s cheaper than if it goes to a landfill. (However,) most of the companies we’re dealing with are really looking at some kind of sustainability as a trademark for their organization.”

Finding Value In Waste

Some of the variables affecting prices for recyclables include the state of the local and world economies, proximity to water if the materials are to be shipped overseas, and even holidays.

Waste Control Inc. (WCI) operates a fleet of trucks for waste and recycling pickups. (Provided by WCI)

“As we get toward the end of the year, a lot of our cardboard ends up in the Pacific Rim,” Fahrion says. “So if they’re slowing down their production because Christmas is coming and things like that, we may see prices fall in the latter part of the year.”

The best WCI can hope for is to get a price for the next month so it can tell customers what to expect, but prices are tough to predict and there’s no exact science to fluctuations, he says.

Another WCI client, a container board manufacturer, typically bales large quantities of recyclable cardboard. However, when the consultant examined the company’s trash, it found that a large percentage of the waste stream was smaller pieces of cardboard not suitable for a baling machine. So, WCI set up a program with the company’s waste hauler, which provided bins for the leftover materials. As a result, the company’s waste costs were reduced by 11% and their sustainability profile grew significantly.

Others have found innovative uses for used foundry sand, or slag. For example, Lindeberg used slag sand to build composting facility pads at a number of facilities that his company RRS helped design.

At Kimura Foundry America, Shelbyville, Ind., operators 3D print molds using a proprietary sand that’s reclaimed in a compete loop. The sand-printing system was awarded the American Foundry Society’s Plant Engineering Award in 2022 for “seamlessly combining three cutting-edge technologies—3D sand printing, artificial sand and sand reclamation.”

The company specializes in providing rapid prototypes and small-volume castings and is increasing capacity to meet diverse market demands for high-quality castings with quick turnaround times, according to an announcement of the award on Kimura’s website.

New Footing for Old Socks

Smartwool, a manufacturer of Merino wool-focused products for active living, wants the socks you’re wearing when they’re worn out.

The apparel maker will add donated footwear to the more than 1 million pairs that have been collected in its Second Cut sock take-back program launched in 2021. While the program takes socks from any maker, only Smartwool socks that are sent in are remade into the company’s new Second Cut Hike Sock.

The recycling program’s hiking socks made of recycled yarn are part of Smartwool’s move to a circular business model. In September, the company also opened a resale platform for its clothing by partnering with online consignment and thrift store thredUP.

“We are working to ensure that the materials we use are recycled, responsibly sourced renewable or regenerative, design these products to be disassembled and recycled, and create systems to enable consumers to extend the lifetime of our product,” says Alicia Chin, director of sustainability and social impact at Denver-based Smartwool. “We are continuing to invest in material innovation to maintain or increase the value of pre- and post-consumer waste and help scale these initiatives with our circularity partner, Material Return.”

Material Return, Morganton, N.C., receives socks from consumers who add a pre-paid, mail-in bag to their cart at Smartwool’s checkout to send in used socks for recycling. Material Return is part of The Industrial Commons, a business incubator and accelerator focused on the working class in America’s south.

All processes to recycle the old socks into new yarn are done within 75 miles of Material Return’s site. In contrast, a lot of circular comes up from Latin America, traveling to Europe, coming back to the U.S., says Molly Hemstreet, co-executive director, The Industrial Commons.

That includes garnetting, or grinding up the fibers; carding, which is the cleaning and fiber aligning process; and spinning the bulk fibers into yarn. Garnetting is outsourced to Leigh Fibers Inc., Wellford, S.C., but the ground up fibers—called shoddy—come back to Material Return for carding. The young company is working to develop its own process for spinning in order to create vertical integration, but until that happens, it too is outsourced to local spinners.

Like its partnership with Smartwool, Material Return’s model is a business-to-business one, to partner with companies that are responsible for handling the textile returns and then buy the recycled yarn made from returned textiles.

An employee at Material Return sorts and bales socks sent in for recycling in Smartwool’s Second Cut sock take back program. (Provided by Material Return)

“What we’re doing is partnering with brands to build out a custom take-back program so a consumer can send their product and know that there’s a company on the other side that’s buying that yarn that we’re processing, to get it back into the raw material stream,” Hemstreet says. “That’s really what distinguishes us around circularity.”

On average, every American discarded about 103 lbs of textiles in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, according to NIST. Only about 15% of used textiles get reused or recycled.

Smartwool and Material Return’s partnership is one solution to recycling textile waste instead of sending it to a landfill.

“Textile recycling has a lot of upside if you are willing to invest and stay focused,” Chin asserts. “It’s also really important to find partners, like Material Return, that align with your brand’s values to maximize the impact of a textile recycling program like this.”

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