A version of this article originally appeared in “Quartz” September 24, 2019. You can read the original here.
For the consumer, recycling is easy. When you empty a jar, bottle, or any recyclable packaging, you rinse out the container and toss it in a bin—maybe you have to roll it to the curb once a week. For a large manufacturer dealing with unique resins, however, recycling is nearly impossible—but we developed a process that not only works for us but perhaps other manufacturers as well.
Many US manufacturers share our recycling struggle. Sustainability is desirable—especially for the companies that create vast amounts of waste—but the challenges to achieving the goal are insurmountable.
Why Recycling in Manufacturing Is Difficult
For companies with a predictable process, manufacturing the same unit or component repeatedly, sustainability is about reintroducing the same materials back into the existing supply chain by finding a buyer for manufacturing waste. For many global manufacturers, including mine, however, the task of zero waste is more complicated.
I lead sustainability for Accumold. We create microscopic parts for critical medical devices, electronics, and wearable technology. You’ll find our parts in devices like diabetes glucose monitors, smartwatches, pacemakers, consumer mobile tech, small micro-optics communications equipment, and surgical components, among other things.
The resins we use for our projects, routinely utilize around 500 different blends and grades used for injection molding. We run 24/7 every day of the year and the parts we produce are consistently unique, which makes our waste consistently unique as well.
Custom manufacturers like us, or those with an ever-changing product line find recycling difficult because effective recycling programs depend on repeatability. And in our case, we can’t even reuse our resins in our own facility due to regulatory and safety standards required by our medical customers.
What Happens When Waste Can’t Be Recycled?
Recycling buyers want purity in the materials they purchase because that makes them easier to sell. They are less likely to buy a constantly evolving mix of resins because it’s difficult to find buyers. When there is no buyer for plastic waste, and clients can’t use it? In the event, a manufacturer is unable to feed plastic waste back into the supply chain, the most cost-effective solution is to send it to a landfill.
For most manufacturers, the only alternative is to stop making the product, or shut down entirely, halting operations to stop plastic waste. Because companies like ours make components for life-saving devices and critical communications equipment. This solution is just as damaging to our global community.
Our unique process yields far less waste than the typical injection molding process, but we knew there was room to improve, and our vision was to achieve zero waste. I was tasked with solving this unsolvable problem.
What if one man’s garbage is also everyone else’s garbage
In 2013, we discovered a large market for scrap plastic, one just as big as the scrap metal industry, but we didn’t know how to handle the incredible diversity of materials we used. On any given day we would generate less than 10 pounds of plastic waste in one specific category, and we wouldn’t run it again until a month later.
Not only do recyclers want purity, they also don’t want small batches of 500 different materials in 10-pound bags. Recycling companies want large loads, potentially thousands of pounds, in one material because it’s easier to sell. Just like any business, recyclers are beholden to customer demand, and no companies in the world are demanding a random melting pot of plastic resins in various colors, strengths, and every conceivable variation.
We knew many big-name recycling companies wouldn’t buy the diverse plastic waste we produced, but we had a crazy idea: what if we could convince the market to change for both the sellers of plastic waste and our potential buyers?
No recycler wanted to take our meeting, but then we found an unlikely ally about 300 miles from our headquarters in Romeoville, Ill, Mega Polymers. As a broker and distributor of plastic resin, they weren’t a recycler. But we convinced them to try it, using us as their first partner. Our first load of recycled plastic ever sold was Mega Polymer’s first load of recycled plastic ever purchased.
How Our Recycling Process Works
As I immediately discovered, we needed to focus on presentability and quality in our scrap plastic waste to make our new relationship work. The appearance, organization, packaging, labeling, and cleanliness mattered.
To achieve this we had to change our internal processes collecting our plastic waste. We broke our plastic waste program into two different systems of sorting. For high-volume plastics, we developed our own internal numbering system, similar to that of the national recycling numbers system. High-volume resins were assigned a number. Waste plastic with assigned numbers would show up on select internal inventory and labels were meticulously tracked every step of our process.
To tackle the pesky small-volume plastics, we developed a labeling process for those categories directly in our internal software. The labels consist of descriptions for each form of resin pulled directly out of our electronic inventory system. Waste was collected, labeled, placed in containers, and shipped to the recycler. The big breakthrough wasn’t a new sorting method as you might expect, but keeping all resin separated throughout our entire process so it didn’t need to be sorted at all!
Accumold’ Recycling By The Numbers
The results were incredible. In 2013, Accumold recycled about 16,000 pounds of plastic scrap—not bad for a recycling debut. In 2018, due to a huge increase in business, we recycled more than 300,000 pounds of waste.
Our sustainability efforts grew exponentially, to the point where Mega Polymers had to break out their recycling business separately, calling their new multi-million-dollar company Mega Recycling.
Neither Accumold nor Mega Polymers had any previous recycling experience—only a commitment to the environment. In a perfect world, improving the environment comes first. In reality however, we can’t rid ourselves of materials and processes our global community depend on. In these cases, the landfill remains the most business-friendly solution. But here’s how we change it.
If we start creating new markets, identifying new demands, and think about waste in new ways, the manufacturing space can actually become sustainable and make our planet and oceans just a little bit cleaner. It sounds impossible— but we’re living proof it can be done.
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Matt Iverson is a sustainability-first warehouse and facilities operations expert. He is an expert in metal and plastic scrap recycling and has won three Continuous Quality Improvement awards.