More than a dozen Minnesota-based companies and organizations are joining a statewide initiative to increase plastic film recycling, which includes diverting shrink wrap and other single-use plastics to a new recycling facility and then incorporating some of the recycled material into operations.
While not everyone is convinced this will make a dent in the global plastic pollution crisis, supporters believe it is a necessary step even if just in the short term.
Americans use 12 to 15 billion pounds of "flexible packaging," plastic bags and other films annually, and just 5% of it is recycled, MBOLD estimates. MBOLD is the arm of Greater MSP that is leading this initiative, which announced commitments Tuesday from Land O'Lakes, Kraus-Anderson, Allina Health, Marvin and others.
All this will help a $24 million plastic recycling facility set to open in Rogers later this year to reach capacity.
"It takes a village to bring a circular economy to scale," MBOLD Managing Director JoAnne Berkenkamp said.
Unlike rigid plastics like milk cartons, flexible plastics and films are difficult to recycle because of a lack of local facilities to handle the products and lack of demand for the recycled material.
South African firm Myplas will run the Rogers recycling facility — its first in the U.S. — which aims to process 90 million pounds of plastic annually at full capacity. Myplas will feed material to Wisconsin's Charter Next Generation to produce plastics with recycled content.
MBOLD members General Mills, Schwan's, Target, Ecolab, Cargill and the University of Minnesota unveiled this initiative last year, but some think plastic recycling isn't the best place to focus efforts.
Plastic recycling perpetuates the use of petroleum-based products, and plastic production growth has, to date, far outpaced recycling efforts. Beyond Plastics, an advocacy group former Regional EPA Administrator Judith Enck leads, seeks to fully eliminate single-use plastics and opposes plastic recycling.
"It does not work, it never will work, and no amount of false advertising will change that," Enck said in a report last year. "We need consumer brand companies and governments to adopt policies that reduce the production, usage and disposal of plastics."
A majority of General Mills shareholders even voted last fall to require the company study a path to "reducing its absolute plastic packaging use."
But for many — including the U.S. State Department's Office of Environmental Quality, which advocates for recycling — the short-term alternative of seeing plastic sent to landfills or littered into the environment while companies slowly adopt alternative materials is unacceptable.
"It's about progress and a recognition of how do we continue to take the momentum we have into moving forward," said Jessica Ehrlichmann, vice president of strategic sourcing, sustainability and safety at Andersen Corp. "I see this as an opportunity to participate alongside others in that progress."
Much of the plastic film Andersen handles comes from suppliers, like raw materials wrapped in film, for example. The company diverts that waste to a non-local recycler but joined the local effort to close the loop on the "circular economy."
"Let's solve these problems in a new way and get there together, faster," Ehrlichmann said. "Once we know the framework, we could replicate it."
Several construction firms, manufacturers, food companies and recycling businesses — plus the Midwest Marina Association, Minnesota Grocers Association and Metropolitan Airports Commission — are among the 18 additional participants announced Tuesday.
"We've been strong proponents of getting end markets developed for film, because it is highly recyclable," said Bill Keegan, president of recycling company Dem-Con. "On the construction side, we have the ability to work with contractors on the job site to separate films and deliver them to Myplas."
Plastic bags and films gum up machinery at single-sort recycling facilities and should not be placed in curbside recycling containers even after Myplas opens its facility, which will focus on commercial and industrial waste streams.
Recyclers can drop off bags and other films at many grocery stores, but currently, those often travel great distances to reach a recycling facility.
"It is being done but not in the most efficient channel," said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. "Bringing in local solutions is the difference."