Reversing Logistics for Plastic Film Recycling
Traditional distribution systems are built for unidirectional flow: from the harvest of raw materials to the manufacturer, through the supply chain to the customer, through the waste management system to disposal. A big challenge for recyclers is redesigning this workflow. For Mainetti, however, that’s nothing new.
Well known as the world’s largest hanger company, Mainetti is a supplier of packaging, branding, and supply-chain products to retailers. At Mainetti, circularity dates back to the beginning of the “Hangerloop” program in the 1980s. Mainetti realized it was expending time and effort to manufacture hangers that were being used only once and thrown away. The firm established a reuse center and started taking the hangers back from its retailer customers. There, hangers are first inspected for quality; depending on their condition, some are reintroduced to the supply chain; others are ground up and recycled into new hangers. The program has grown with reuse centers in the UK, EU and U.S., and Mainetti now reuses or recycles over one billion hangers per year.
Reclaimed hangers are inspected and sorted. (Photos: Mainetti)
Last year, Mainetti brought this circular thinking to clear film packaging with its “Polyloop” program. Like hangers, clear plastic packaging is a valuable product that is used once and destroyed or recycled into a low-grade “black” material with limited applications and about half the value. To keep that value in the material, clarity was crucial.
Logistical and Technical Challenges
Garment shrouds are used to protect clothing as they travel from their place of manufacture, often in Asia, through supply chains to distribution centers in the UK or elsewhere. The clothing goes on to retail stores and consumers, while the packaging was simply destroyed. Part of the challenge of implementing Polyloop was reversing the supply chain.
“Polyloop is not just the equipment. It’s the ability to work with the retailer and then reintroduce this subsequent material back into their global supply chain. That is the trick,” says Keith Charlton, COO for Mainetti.
After the packaging is recovered, it has to be made usable again. Along the way, packaging often has labels stuck to it, is printed or written on, mixed with other materials. All of this contamination has to be washed out before the film can be processed again into new packaging materials.
From the company’s contacts in the industry and research at trade fairs, Mainetti recruited a group of equipment suppliers to create a new recycling line, the first of its kind in the UK.
The line includes granulation, filtration, and extrusion, but perhaps most critical is the washing system. The line’s washing system must not only deal with contaminants like paper and remove ink from the film, but also create a high-purity output. Unlike recycled plastic bags used in grocery stores, for example, clarity is of high importance for retail packaging. Clothes need to be visible to the eye through the packaging, and inventory barcodes must be visible to the machines that read them throughout the journey.
After around two years of design and construction, followed by months of testing, the line is now running in Wrexham, Wales. Its capacity is 6 million lb/yr.
“When we presented it to the market, the reaction was fantastic. Because this is dealing with a problem a lot of our customers have been wrestling with for a long time,” says Charlton.
Mainetti’s Polyloop recycling equipment.
Market and Regulatory Pressures
Customer demand and regulation have been two big drivers of recycling, and they have been successful. In the UK, regulation came in the form of the Plastic Packaging Tax, which took effect in April of this year. The act established a tax of 200 per ton on plastic material containing less than 30% recycled content.
But a global company like Mainetti needs to consider new taxes, bans, and extended producer responsibility laws that can vary from country to country or even within countries.
“There are a lot of differences in how it’s being applied, but the landing zone they’re all coming to is right around that same level, 30%,” says Charlton. “People feel they can introduce it there, with a view that in five to 10 years it could be 50% or 60% as the technology improves and as the whole supply chain comes together to address this problem.”
In the future Mainetti plans to build on the success of the Polyloop program, expanding its recycling operations to strategic locations.
“We hope to take this out of the UK and to more areas around the world. And it is not just the UK, EU and U.S. that are interested, so we see a huge opportunity to scale this and I would hope that within the next few years we have lines in a number of countries,” says Charlton.
Landscape Photo Credit: Mainetti
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