Arlene Karidis | Dec 15, 2022
As chemical recyclers try and tackle a mammoth industry pain point—hard-to-recycle plastics—they should partner with materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Together they can strengthen the plastics recycling system while mutually benefiting their respective businesses; or so that is a takeway of a recent Closed Loop Partners report.
Indiana-based chemical recycler Brightmark is taking such a partnership approach, incentivizing MRFs to sort plastics from nonplastics, then deliver to Brightmark what they can’t handle or can’t send to mechanical recyclers. That’s a fair share of material – only about 15 to 25 percent of plastics can be mechanically recycled by some studies.
MRFs sort, bale, and deliver the plastic to Brightmark’s Indiana plant where it is converted to new products. Brightmark’s pitch to prospective partners is that they will offset their tipping fees and get paid for the deluge of materials that come their way for which they have no outlet.
What Brightmark gets is a workable feedstock; they lower their sorting costs; and mitigate snags on the pretreatment end.
“There are tremendous volumes of plastic out there. We use about 400 million tons globally every year [with about 40 percent being single-use plastic]. But we have very low recycling rates. To solve for that we have to work with the ecosystem, meaning all key stakeholders that impact waste need to work together to create a more circular, sustainable future,” says Bob Powell, founder and CEO of Brightmark.
But the current ecosystem doesn’t work well, throwing up a barrier for chemical recyclers. These operators, which still are relatively few, say they have the technical ability to turn complex plastics into circular products if all key players were present and came together.
That’s where the conversation gravitates to MRFs who are at the core of this system. A large focus, at least for Brightmark, is on plastic films, a big problem for MRFs.
This lightweight, flexible material wraps around plants’ equipment causing disruptions, sometimes forcing shut downs.
“But that film stream is highly viable to us, and we want it. Polyethylene-based film structures tend to have a high conversion yield, which makes them desirable for our process,” Powell says.
His company’s MRF partners take on the task of secondary sorting on site or with partners offsite. This sortation process is key to Brightmark’s ability to convert the material to a product that meets the volume and quality demands of its customers, such high-profile offtakers as bp.
The chemical recycler’s process entails shredding and densifying plastics, then converting them via pyrolysis into a liquid stream serving as feedstock to make circular plastics.
Brightmark buys material only from suppliers, whether MRFs or other postindustrial partners, who can separate, clean, and process it to its standards. But only so many MRFs have these technical capabilities. So, a sizable portion of the stream is missed, necessitating work to address what Powell calls a market disconnect around quality of materials.
For MRFs, being a part of this effort typically requires additional investment in infrastructure. Making that investment work economically for them and ensuring success for companies like Brightmark means vetting the model for operational and financial viability. Logistics is a part of that.
Brightmark looks for partners that are within a 200-mile radius of its Indiana facility, allowing the processor to touch Detroit, parts of Chicago, and Indianapolis—three large metropolitan areas.
That 200-mile radius was determined taking into account that, for the operation to work at large scale, trucks must be able to leave the MRFs with plastics; get to the Indiana conversion facility; unload; and drive back within a day.
Brightmark looks at MRFs’ past sorting records and quality of their output, even before discussing the proposition of adding secondary sorting capabilities.
“There will be investments that they will have to make. But we start with, is this the right MRF to work with? Is the facility well run and good at sorting materials in general?” Powell says.
The cost for additional sorting and separation equipment depends on the volume and how clean the stream is. Powell’s team walks MRF’s through determining the investment they would need to make.
The interest is there.
“We’ve seen MRFs motivated to keep waste out of landfill from both a mission and economic perspective. They are willing to do extra work and invest in additional infrastructure to work toward that mission,” Powell says.
Pellitteri Waste Systems plans to process and send film to Brightmark from its single-stream MRF in Madison, Wis. The facility processes around 5,000 tons per month; film accounts for about 3 percent of the total weight of that material.
“Before we started testing with Brightmark, all our film was being landfilled. We haven’t been able to fully implement the film program yet, but when they go into full production, we look forward to being able to divert that film,” says David Pellitteri, vice president of Pellitteri Waste Systems.
Pellitteri is prepared to move into this venture, with quality control robots, opticals, related equipment, and manpower that are designed to remove contamination and prepare materials to go to market for reuse. And staff are trained to handle film differently than other contaminants.
Even with such infrastructure, today’s single-stream recycling facilities can’t process film in an economical way, and it becomes a contaminant throughout the entire system.
“Brightmark’s system will not change the fact that film is a contaminate in the single stream. But by having partners in place like Brightmark, it will allow us to isolate the unwanted film and give it new life instead of end of life at a landfill.”
He anticipates sending 150-200 tons a month of film to Brightmark and plans to offer collection programs to municipal and commercial customers.
Source separating will have benefit beyond keeping the material out of single-stream and landfill, he surmises.
“Brightmark’s technology can help provide the waste and recycling industry with a low-cost alternative for large-volume, post-consumer film that hasn’t been available outside the waste-to-energy marketplace,” Pellitteri says.
Brightmark is looking for other outlets to buy from, currently pre-qualifying material from the recycling industry, post-industrial sources, agricultural plastic, e-waste, and boat/car wraps.
Partnerships across the value chain will be key to scaling and ultimately improving economics of the entire recycling system in Powell’s eyes.
“The pie gets larger if we unlock the value of waste streams. And we are diverting and using what was previously garbage.”
Powell says Brightmark works with over a dozen MRFs. He would not disclose how much film he receives from them or how much film Brightmark processes.