The problem big manufacturers have with recycling—and how to fix it

For most manufacturers, the landfill is still the smartest choice.
For most manufacturers, the landfill is still the smartest choice.
Image: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
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For the normal consumer, recycling is pretty easy—when you finish something that comes in a jar, bottle, or any type of recyclable packaging, you rinse out the container and throw it in a bin. Maybe you have to roll the bin to the curb once a week.

For a large manufacturer, however, scale becomes a big problem. In fact, for many US manufacturers, recycling is nearly impossible.

Sustainability should be a priority—especially for the companies that create vast amounts of the waste we need to account for. But there are a ton of challenges to actually achieving that goal, and the manufacturing industry is behind.

The recycling problem

If a company manufactures the same unit or component—glass products, for example—over and over, year after year, the process is predictable. Sustainability via recycling is just a matter of reintroducing the same materials back into the existing supply chain. If you find a buyer for your manufacturing waste, or if you can use it internally, there’s a high likelihood you can recycle it.

For a large number of global manufacturers, including mine, however, the task of zero waste is more complicated.

Many manufacturers, (again, like mine) have diverse product lines and produce an array of constantly changing products, and thus require many different materials and resources.

I lead sustainability for a company called Accumold. We create microscopic parts for critical medical devices, electronics, and wearable technology, like diabetes glucose monitors, smart watches, pacemakers, consumer mobile tech, surgical components, among other things. Our use of plastic resin for these products consists of over 500 different blends and grades used for injection molding. We run 24/7 every day of the year. The parts we produce are consistently unique, which makes our waste consistently unique as well.

The problem is, buyers are not looking for a bizarre mix of plastics. For the most part, they want purity in the materials they purchase.

Our med-tech client base further complicates the issue. This field generally mandates a no-recycled-plastic policy because of extremely high-quality controls, safety, and industry regulations.

So, what happens if there is no buyer for your plastic waste, and your clients can’t use it?

Because of the inability to feed plastic waste back into the supply chain, or the inability to find a buyer for that waste, the most cost-effective solution is to send it to a landfill. In our day and age of climate crisis, this is a solution that none of us should even consider. For most manufacturers, the only alternative would be to stop making the product, or shut down. But if our goal is sustainability, simply halting operations to stop plastic waste from one plant is also not a viable option. Our microscopic injection-molded parts play a critical role in the medical world. Since Accumold makes the microscopic components for some of the biggest wearables, phone and med-tech companies in the world, another manufacturer just like us would inevitably spring up and fill the demand.

Still, we have been campaigning for better recycling and waste management for years. As the manufacturer and production manager, I was tasked with stopping landfill waste for a company that makes critical components, and produces waste that no one can use.

What if one man’s garbage is also everyone else’s garbage?

When we started out, we already knew many big-name recycling companies simply would not buy the diverse plastic waste we produced because it wouldn’t be worth the money and energy it would take to process it to reintroduce or sell back into the supply chain.

But one glimmer of hope gnawed at us. We couldn’t change the mix of plastic we use, but what if we could convince the market to change—for both the sellers of plastic waste and our potential buyers?

In 2013 our sustainability obsession was validated when we made a discovery: A large market did exist for scrap plastic, one just as big as the scrap metal industry.

Finally, we could formalize a recycling program that would tackle our plastic waste and get traction with a recycling plan!

But we still 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.

This created a great challenge for common recyclers in the plastic industry. Recyclers 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.

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.

Because no recycler wanted to take our meeting, we eventually found someone willing to listen in Romeoville, Ill., about 300 miles from our headquarters.

The company, Mega Polymers, is a broker and distributor of plastic resin—i.e. not a recycler. Our first load of recycled plastic ever sold was Mega Polymer’s first load of recycled plastic ever purchased.

As I immediately discovered, we needed to focus on presentability and quality in our scrap plastic waste, meaning the appearance of the waste in how it’s packaged.

This required us asking things like: Is it being transported in a clean gaylord box? Is it clearly labeled for identification purposes? Nobody wants to play a guessing game based on the appearance and identification of the product being shipped.

When you buy a car from a used car lot you expect it to be clean and looking brand new, right? Same concept here

To get there, we turned to a very old school internal sorting process.

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 and were meticulously tracked every step of our process, internally.

But what of those pesky small-volume plastics that are fairly easy to simply toss in the trash?

To tackle this, 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 is collected, labeled, placed in containers, and shipped to the recycler. The key wasn’t in finding new sorting methods, the key was keeping all resin separated so it didn’t need to be sorted at all.

In 2013, Accumold recycled about 16,000 pounds of plastic scrap under this new collaboration—not bad for a recycling debut. In 2018, we recycled more than 300,000 pounds of waste, thanks in part to dramatic increases in business.

The sustainability partnership has grown 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 company had any previous experience in the scrap plastic industry alone. This partnership birthed itself out of a commitment to the environment by Accumold to decrease our carbon footprint. Keep an emphasis on these key elements when starting a sustainable recycling program within your industry.

In an ideal world, improving the environment must come first, feeding the global supply chain second, and profits must come last.

But in reality, you can’t really get rid of a material if no one has a use for it. There are a ton of new technologies, projects and initiatives that claim to help the planet. But some of the biggest polluters have no incentive to take the extra step, and the landfill remains the most business-friendly solution.

But if we start creating new markets, identifying new demands, and new ways of thinking about waste in the first place, the manufacturing space could actually become sustainable, and make our planet and oceans just a little bit cleaner.