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Environmental Action

Turning environmental policy into action:

Recycling equipment

HDPE milk jugs beginning the Perstorp Xytec recycling process.

The Perstorp Xytec story

by Mare Daudon and Michelle Caulfield

A company faces the challenges of an in-house plastics processing system and achieves success.

From Resource Recycling Magazine, April 1997

Perstorp Xytec, Inc. uses the three Rs of waste management - reduce, reuse and recycle - to manufacture reusable industrial shipping containers. And it has adopted the four Ps of business management - partnership, perseverance, pride and policy - to achieve success.

The company, located in Tacoma, Washington (just south of Seattle), is a subsidiary of Perstorp AB, a Swedish chemical and manufacturing company with about $2 billion in sales worldwide. Perstorp Xytec produces reusable shipping containers, which replace disposable wood pallets and cardboard boxes, and less durable reusable containers made from metal, wire or wood. The result is a container that delivers superior performance and long-lasting environmental and economic benefits to customers through waste reduction, reuse and recycling.

Company commitment
Perstorp's pursuit of the reusable container stemmed from an aggressive corporate environmental policy espoused by its parent company. The policy calls for "optimal environmental protection, surpassing environmental regulations by broad margins, and maintaining a leadership role in new technological developments."

Beginning in 1989, Perstorp Xytec began to turn its environmental policy into action. Over the years, the company's commitment to that policy has continued to grow:

* In 1990, the company began to convert its plant scrap into feed-stock for new shipping containers. Today, this standard operating practice results in minimal plastics waste from its manufacturing operation.

* In 1992, the company initiated a return program, allowing its customers to send their old containers back to be shredded and recycled into new ones, a program that has since been expanded into a full-fledged buy-back operation. Perstorp Xytec also accepts its competitors' containers, offering credit against the purchase of new containers from Perstorp.

* In 1993, the company started using post-consumer plastics to manufacture some of its shipping containers, establishing an in-house system to produce a virgin/recycled resin blend from recycled high density polyethylene (HDPE) milk jugs. To date, Perstorp has used more than 4.7 million pounds of HDPE - almost 30 million milk jugs - as feedstock.

* In 1996, Perstorp invested in a giant shredder to recover its old containers and plant scrap more efficiently. The shredder enables the company to reduce a full-size container to fist-sized chunks, which are then fed into the recycling system and blended back into the feedstock to produce a new product. With this new equipment, the company hopes to expand its buy-back program - and gain market share from competitors.

Public partnership
In 1992, a presentation by the Clean Washington Center (Seattle) about the virtues of post-consumer resin (PCR) led Perstorp to a public-private collaboration. After much discussion, CWC - the recycling market development agency for the State of Washington - contributed approximately $25,000 to test the feasibility of using PCR as feedstock for Perstorp's shipping containers.

After a series of tests, CWC and Perstorp determined that HDPE milk jugs were the ideal source material. In fact, tests showed that certain performance properties of the containers were actually improved by using the post-consumer milk jugs. The result? An in-house post-consumer plastics recycling system was built at Perstorp's Tacoma plant.

CWC helped to identify and evaluate the equipment needed to operate an in-house re-cycling system. "We are fortunate to be located in Washington State and to have received assistance from the Clean Washington Center," says Todd Huber, Perstorp's plant manager. The partnership formed between CWC and Perstorp expedited the project and reduced its overall risk, he believes.

The system
Perstorp allocated nearly 1,000 feet in its manufacturing plant to the in-house recycling system. The company also assembled $250,000 of new equipment to shred, wash, dry and extrude recovered HDPE milk bottles. This re-cycling system includes a bale breaker, shredder and an auger feeder, which evenly transports materials from the shredder to the washer. Also included in this system are a washer, dryer, grinder, hopper, blender and extruder.
Operating system

The Perstorp Xytec Recycling System is designed to cost effectively process up to 520 pounds of post-consumer milk jugs per hour into a clean flake that can be mixed with virgin resin and extruded into a virgin/recycled blended pellet.

The bale breaker separates 2,500 pound bales of milk jugs. The HDPE is then shredded into two-inch flakes, and loose paper contaminants are blown into the paper collector. The shredded HDPE is then washed, dried and ground into a finer form for the extrusion process, which removes milk residue, dust and any remaining paper contaminants that survived the initial shredding process.

To achieve optimal performance, the clean recycled HDPE and virgin HDPE are blended at a 40/60 ratio and extruded into a recycled-content pellet, ready for the pallet container manufacturing operation.

The end result is a product with 12 percent post-consumer content and superior strength and rigidity performance characteristics. In addition, the in-house recycling system can enable Perstorp Xytec to reduce manufacturing costs when the recycled feedstock is less expensive than virgin resin. This is a win-win situation, with Perstorp Xytec producing a re-cycled-content product that delivers enhanced performance at a lower cost than the 100 percent virgin alternative.

Climbing the learning curve.
Achieving this success, however, has taken time, ingenuity, perseverance and money. The company has had to learn the ropes of the re-cycling business. In addition, it has faced unique challenges associated with building an in-house processing system rather than buying recycled resin from an outside supplier.

Perstorp's plastics recycling program owes its success, in part, to the company's willingness to invest the financial and technical resources needed to overcome initial obstacles, Huber says. "In-house recycling is not recommended for companies that can't easily fund the initial and subsequent working capital requirements," he adds.

"Being a guinea pig requires patience, creative energy and flexibility," Huber explains. "From the beginning, we were ready to face the challenges that unquestionably arise with any new and innovative business venture." Some of these challenges include:

Debugging the recycling process line
Since 1993, Perstorp has added or replaced several components of the recycling system, including the addition of two dust collectors and a filter attached to the extruder. In addition, the company has had to upgrade the bale breaker, rebuild the paper collectors and replace many components of the washing system.

"The technology available in 1993 was just not that sophisticated," Huber says. "Perstorp's engineers and managers have learned along the way, and redesigned, rebuilt and modified the system to make it work."

Obtaining a stable, affordable supply of recovered milk jugs.
When it began this venture, Perstorp anticipated that relatively clean post-consumer milk jugs would be readily and inexpensively available. Perstorp quickly learned otherwise, finding that material acquisition can be a tricky business.

The company tried to obtain material locally, but found that Tacoma didn't collect milk jugs at the curb and that milk jugs collected at local drop-off centers were already committed to other markets. Management ultimately solved this problem by hiring brokers to obtain the needed supply, while avoiding any long-term contracts that would reduce its market flexibility.

According to Huber, "You pay a little extra, but you save time and money in the long run by recruiting a specialist in post-consumer plastics to navigate the ins and outs of the re-cycling supply markets for you."

Dealing with the waste by-products from recycling
Although recycling is considered good for the environment, the waste water produced as a by-product of the washing system can be an environmental concern. By accepting milk jugs only, Perstorp Xytec avoids the waste water problems associated with non-biodegradable detergents and oils found in many colored HDPE containers.

The company recently installed a membrane-type water filtration system that reduces discharges of oils and greases from the entire plant to 10 to 30 parts per million (ppm), well below the 50 ppm allowed by Washington State law.

Recycling into the 21st century
As the third anniversary of the start-up of Perstorp's post-consumer plastics line passes, the recycling initiative continues to face the challenges of succeeding over the long term. "Our goals for the next five years are to continually upgrade the processing technology so that we lower costs and increase efficiencies, and to market our post-consumer content as a sales tool," Huber explains. The company's next big move is to upgrade the washing system to improve the efficiency of the extrusion process.

Perstorp also is learning to work with regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Recently, Perstorp received approval from FDA to use recycled milk jugs in agricultural field and storage applications. Food items can now be stored in recycled-content containers for up to 10 months. Perstorp believes this is going to accelerate the use of more milk jugs.

One disappointment for Perstorp's management has been the marketplace response to the recycled-content attribute of its product line, Huber admits. Despite the fact that the company helps divert approximately 1.5 million pounds of plastic milk jugs from land-tills annually and that reclaimed containers are made into new ones, only a handful of customers say they purchase the containers because of their recycled content. The company expected a stronger response to the re-cycled content, given past interest in recycling and the environment, Huber says.

Regardless, Perstorp - and its employees - remain committed to its environmental policies. According to Huber, Perstorp's employees have helped Perstorp succeed. "People like working in a progressive business environment," he explains. Huber says it is common to see employees bringing milk jugs from home to toss in the hopper. "It's a small gesture, perhaps," Huber remarks, "but a telling one. The people of Perstorp take pride in what they do."

According to Huber, the environment is a strategic opportunity for Perstorp. "Using re-cycled plastics in our product positions us to deal with environmental issues that will inevitably come up in the next decade or two. We feel this step is important and will contribute to our market share and our bottom line over the long term." RR

Mare Daudon is vice president of the Cascadia Consulting Group, an environmental consulting firm in Seattle. He provides technical assistance on plastics recycling in Washington State through the American Plastics Council's Technical Assistance Program. Michelle Caulfield is an associate with Cascadia who provides technical assistance on recycling, waste prevention and recycled-content product procurement to businesses in King County, Washington.

The Perstorp Xytec experience was documented thoroughly through the Clean Washington Center's ReTAP (Recycling Technology Assistance Partnership) program, which is underwritten, in part, by the American Plastics Council.

This article is one of a series of case studies of plastics recyclers, sponsored by the American Plastics Council (Washington). Previous articles are available on APC's Web site (http://www.plasticsre source.corn). For more information, contact Erin Kelly at APC, (202) 974-5429.


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