Houston Avangard recycler takes up the plastic film challenge

The plastic grocery bag and dry cleaning bag are puzzles for recyclers. They are made of plastic and the plastic must be recycled, but most curbside recycling programs do not accept these products.

Now add the scale of a large retailer that receives pallets of merchandise wrapped with that same flexible polyethylene film. The material cannot be processed by traditional material recovery facilities, which receive mixed recycled products and sort them into their different categories such as plastic bottles, steel cans and cardboard boxes. The plastic film can get tangled in the sorting equipment and stop the whole process.

It’s a Houston-based challenge Innovative Avangard seeks to resolve with a facility primarily focused on the recycling of plastic films. The 35-year-old company opened the facility in 2017 to shred the film, melt it into pellets, and then sell those pellets to companies at home and abroad to make new plastic film products. It plans to expand next year with factories in Cypress, Mexico and Nevada.

These factories are attacking a segment of recycling that is lagging behind other products. The recycling rate for plastic films was 16% in 2015, compared to about 30% for commonly recycled plastic bottles, said Keith Christman, general manager of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, the trade group for the chemical industry, citing data from Environmental Protection. Agency.

It’s a segment that the American Chemistry Council is working to address as the industry comes under increasing pressure to reduce plastic waste that chokes the oceans and litter the landscape. Christman said there has been progress. A report prepared for the trade group found that one billion pounds of plastic wrap was collected for recycling in 2017, up 54% from 2005.

“It is increasing,” he said. “Our goal is to overtake it.

He said consumers can take their grocery bags, dry cleaning bags and other plastic wrap (a more detailed list can be found at PlasticFilmRecycling.org) to grocery stores that have receptacles for recycling this material. Avangard focuses on how companies recycle plastic packaging. CEO Rick Perez started the company in 1984 by collecting and packaging plastic bottles, then sending them to other companies who would turn the bottles into granules used to make rugs.

In 1995, Avangard built a factory that turned plastic bottles into granules, which were then resold to bottle makers. Avangard also operated a materials recovery facility.

The company’s primary focus, however, has been to help Fortune 1000 companies in 11 countries reduce their waste costs by finding items to recycle rather than trash. The sale of these recycled items is also a new source of income.

To do this, Avangard is modernizing skips, balers and compactors with technology. Scales and sensors monitor the receptacle’s fill level, and a camera uses artificial intelligence to identify what is being thrown away. This helps determine how often the dumpster needs to be emptied, so companies only pay to empty it when needed, and not on an arbitrary pickup schedule.

The technology also tracks the amount of recyclable material that ends up in the trash. Avangard then sends a team to the company’s workplace to rethink the way employees work in a way that spurs recycling.

“What we’re looking for is to find hidden green assets,” Perez said. “Green, obviously for the environment, but green for the dollars. You are wasting money. And it’s also socially responsible.

It was this process of controlling corporate waste and recycling that got Perez’s attention to plastic wrap. With advancements in sorting equipment and odor removal, which can linger on plastic films used in food and other packaging, Perez decided it was time to rise to the challenge.

The recycling process begins with the manual removal by workers of large visible contaminants, such as leftover cardboard boxes or the stiff plastic straps used to secure items to pallets. The plastic film is then shredded to a size at which the sorting equipment can use puffs of air to remove smaller contaminants, such as the ink coated plastic film.

One of the challenges is that the plastic films stick together, allowing contaminants to hide between the shredded pieces. The installation filters these contaminants by washing, agitation and continuous vibration.

What is left are better quality plastic shreds that are crushed into small pieces and then melted down. The molten plastic is passed through a machine which removes any remaining ink, then breaks it into pellets. The water cools and hardens the granules.

The process ends with mixing the granules in specific batches to customer requests for creating carrier rings for six packs of beer or soda, plastic bags, hoses and other flexible consumer products.

“The fact that they’ve been able to take this out of the trash and recycle it, well done to them,” said Brandon Wright, spokesperson for the National Waste and Recycling Association business group. “It’s great that they’ve found a business model for this. “

Avangard’s premier plastic film recycling facility, located next to its head office at 11906 Brittmoore Park Dr., produces 50 million pounds of pellets per year. This represents approximately four trucks of pellets that leave the facility each day.

Growing demand for the company’s recovered plastic is driving its expansion. A plant at Cypress is expected to come on stream in the first quarter of next year. This will be followed by one near Mexico City, slated to open in the second quarter, and a facility in Nevada slated to open in the third quarter of 2020.

Perez said demand is driven in part by consumers calling on companies to be better stewards of the environment.

“This is what consumers are looking for,” he said. “Solutions that will not contaminate their communities, their oceans and their landfills. “

andrea.leinfelder@chron.com

Twitter.com/a_leinfelder

Bryce K. Locke