While carbon footprint and cost reductions provide plenty of incentive for manufacturers to use recycled materials, another factor has come on the scene in recent years—a concept known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR incorporates all the environmental costs in the lifecycle of consumer products and packaging, and instead shifts the burden of waste management from consumers and government to manufacturers.
As industry shifts to become as sustainable as possible, it only makes sense that more and more manufacturers are using recycled materials in their products, everything from cars to plastic bottles to steel. The advantages are well documented: Using recycled material eliminates the need to extract minerals and oil from the ground, resulting in reduced energy use, water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and overall costs.
“We’re seeing a higher interest in the use of recycled content in both product and packaging. Not only are large consumer brand companies driving that with their sustainability plans, it’s also being driven by consumers that feed the large-box stores, both online and brick-and-mortar,” said Bob Bylone, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center.
While carbon footprint and cost reductions provide plenty of incentive for manufacturers to use recycled materials, another factor has come on the scene in recent years—a concept known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR incorporates all the environmental costs in the lifecycle of consumer products and packaging, and instead shifts the burden of waste management from consumers and government to manufacturers. Think of soda bottle return programs that offer a nickel or dime for each empty bottle returned.
EPR most often consists of financial measures that hold manufacturers responsible for waste disposal. This usually means end-of-life strategies such as take-back and recycling programs, and designing new products that are easier to reuse, repair, and recycle.
States are leading the way with this new policy. In the past 14 months, four states—Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and California-passed packaging EPR laws that use funds from packaging producers to expand each states’ municipal recycling systems. Since 2000, the Product Stewardship Institute has helped enact 130 EPR laws across 16 product categories in 33 states. Meanwhile, some 32 states have passed laws for specific product categories or packaging materials, while another 40 EPR-related bills were brought up for consideration in 19 states during 2022.
One of the first areas to face extended producer responsibility is the electronics industry. So-called e-waste has become the fastest-growing waste stream and includes computers, servers, cell phones, and printers as well as washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, and heat pumps. Twenty-five states have implemented laws that require electronic waste recycling. Of those, 23 have incorporated some form of EPR into their laws.
Companies that use recycled materials in their products generally fall into two categories. Some replace virgin materials incrementally and gradually increase the percentage of recycled materials used. Others build a product and business model around using 100 percent of a recycled material.
Perhaps the biggest user of recycled materials in the country, and one that falls into the first category, is Ford Motor Company.
“Ford works diligently to implement recycled, plant-based, and bio-based materials into its vehicle parts with a focus on making vehicle interiors as big a sustainability focus as what comes out the tailpipe,” said Debbie Mielewski, senior sustainability fellow at Ford.
Every vehicle Ford produces has recycled content, Mielewski added. In addition to recycled plastic components in underbody parts, engine casings and wiring, Ford uses recycled metals as well as plant and bio-based plastics. Every vehicle made in North America has soy foam seat cushions, seat backs, and headliners, reducing petroleum use and carbon dioxide emissions and, in many cases, also reducing weight to help with fuel efficiency. Ford uses recycled denim and carpet, and recycles more than 1.2 billion soda bottles into its vehicles each year.
“We are constantly finding new materials to research and add. We are currently looking to expand our use of nanocellulose tree fiber waste byproduct into more vehicle part applications,” Mielewski added. The automaker is also working with two large automotive suppliers to recycle ocean plastic waste, including fishing nets into car parts.
One company that built its business model around using 100 percent recycled materials for its products is HydroBlox. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, the company has two factories in Pennsylvania and is adding others in Michigan, Florida, Texas, and on the West Coast.
The company manufactures drainage planks from recycled plastic that convey stormwater. Manufactured by a proprietary process, the planks look like long boards and have a porous section running the length of them to conduct water.
“Basically, it replaces traditional French drains. You just dig a trench and drop them in the ground,” said Ed Grieser, HydroBlox founder and CEO. The planks last longer than French drains as well, Grieser said.
HydroBlox primarily serves commercial and industrial clients, installing planks around pipelines, underneath railroads, roads, and porous pavement, and in bioswales and green roofs. The planks also serve as a replacement for sand mounds in septic systems.
“Our process is flexible enough to take in just about every material. We take in LDPE [low-density polyethylene], HDPE [high-density polyethylene], and polypropylene and we put it together in our mix,” Grieser explained. “Everything that comes through the door would otherwise go to the landfill. There is an alarming amount of brand-new post-industrial scrap that is not recyclable, off-spec, and contaminated. Companies that sell plastic tell their customers to send scrap to HydroBlox to meet their EPR.”
Mixing different plastics together presents challenges, according to Grieser. “We adapt the recipe, the mix that goes in there. We have to get a handle on the different melt ranges of the plastics and the type of plastic it is. We have a piece of equipment that identifies that.”
STEEL–S THE FRONTRUNNER
Arguably, the leading industry in the recycling world is steel, as more steel is recycled than any other material by weight. Steel mills have recycled scrap metal into products for decades. The global steel recycling rate stands at more than 60 percent.
When it comes to steelmaking, most picture a huge blast furnace, also known as a basic oxygen furnace. Coke is used to melt iron ore to create pig iron, and oxygen is added to transform the pig iron to steel, a process that produces high CO2 emissions.
However, most steel today is made with the electric arc furnace (EAF), which is smaller and more efficient.
“In the United States, the electric arc furnace is predominant. It’s about 70 percent of the production of steel,” said Mark Thimons, vice president of sustainability at the American Institute of Steel and Iron.
Instead of using coke, electricity flows through graphite electrodes to create an arc to melt scrap steel, direct-reduced iron, or pig iron to produce molten steel. Scrap steel is typically used, as it can be recycled repeatedly without loss of quality or strength.
A minimum of 70 percent scrap is used, although steel manufacturers will often use 100 percent scrap.
The first EAFs appeared in the late 19th Century, and electric steelmaking began to expand after World War II. The low capital cost allowed mini-mills to quickly establish and compete with the big U.S. steelmakers.
“There’s been an ongoing effort to lower the greenhouse gas emissions associated with steel production worldwide. One way of doing that is using more recycled scrap,” Thi-mons explained. “Some 60 to 80 million tons of scrap a year gets recycled. There’s been a recycling infrastructure in place in the U.S. for a long time.”
The need for a continuous feedstock of steel scrap drives the recycling of many common steel products, including cans, cars, appliances, and construction materials.
“They get it from scrap processing companies,” Thi-mons added. “These are large and small facilities all over the country. Some are owned by the steel mills themselves. They’ve vertically integrated them that way.”
If steel is the most recycled material with the most developed recycling infrastructure, then plastic is the least such recycled material. Overall, only about 10 percent of all plastic produced gets recycled. This causes huge problems because most of the bottles and other single-use plastic products consumers use make their way to local waterways and eventually the oceans where they get consumed by sea creatures such as turtles and whales.
Plastic is made by a complex petroleum-based process where ethane and propane are heated to form monomers such as ethylene and propylene, which is also known as cracking. These are combined with a catalyst to create polymers, which are fed into an extruder that melts the material and squeezes it out in the form of tubes, which get cut into small pellets. These are shipped to factories to be melted and molded into a myriad of products.
Many companies use recycled plastic bottles for manufacturing products such as carpeting, ski jackets, clothing, lumber, and furniture, and this solves part of the problem. But ecologists say the ultimate solution is to recycle singleuse plastics such as bottles back into bottles, both to save the costs of extracting materials from the Earth and keep plastic objects in a circular system and out of waterways.
In preparing recycled plastics for reuse, the first step is sorting the different types of plastic, which are then further sorted by other properties such as color, thickness, and use. This is done by manual labor and machines at a material recycling facility. After washing, the plastic is fed into shredders, which grind it into small pieces. Shredded plastic is then formed into pellets through compounding and extruding. This process is similar to that used to produce virgin plastics.
The bottle plant mixes virgin polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin pellets with the recycled plastic pellets. An extruder melts the PET mix at about 500 °F and injects the nearly molten material into blow molds, into which pressurized air is applied to force the material against the sides of the mold.
It would seem a simple matter to just use recycled plastic pellets to make PET bottles from 100 percent recycled material, but there’s a catch. Plastic loses some of its physical properties when repeatedly heated, so manufacturers traditionally have had to limit the amount of recycled material they use in a mix. Major bottlers such as Coca-Cola and Nestle have found ways around this, developing bottles made of 100 percent recycled material that are used for select products. Coca-Cola reports that its bottles use an average of 25 percent recycled material.
Moving forward, Coca-Cola aims to make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable globally by 2025, in addition to using at least 50 percent recycled materials in its packaging by 2030.
Efforts like this will require long-term commitments from the industry, as well as government and consumers not only at the local level, but also worldwide.
Organizations such as the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center operate at the state and local level to help manufacturers take these steps forward. This independent, non-profit corporation, headquartered at Penn State Harrisburg, is on a mission to expand the use of the state’s recycled materials.
“On the technical side, we provide early-stage product commercialization assistance. We have the ability to take somebody’s concept and help them bring it to life on a tabletop or bench,” Bylone explained. “If somebody wants to evaluate a process or equipment, we have the engineering and manufacturing knowledge to do that.”
Bylone’s group is not that unique in the recycling world. “There are enterprises across the country doing this,” he said. Other states such as Washington, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan, and Colorado have market development functions as well.
With resources like this in place, there’s hope manufacturers can continue to increase the use of recycled materials in their products, and someday can achieve 100 percent recycled content in all products on the road to sustainability.