Putting the “green” in “greenstream”
Distributors can play a key role in establishing sustainability while adding revenue to their operations
by Dan Rustin,
There are few areas where recycling has a more dramatic effect than in the plastics industry. The vast majority of plastics can be recycled; the only question is how easily. Plastics recycling tends to fall into two categories: pre-consumer and post-consumer. Most manufacturers focus on the pre-consumer variety – that is, utilizing the scrap generated during the manufacturing process and reincorporating it in to their processes. (“Pre-consumer” is defined as anything that happens in the supply chain before reaching the end user, i.e., at manufacturers, distributors, value-added resellers.)
While manufacturers have become increasingly active participants in the “green” game, distributors for the most part, have spent most of their time on the sidelines. This is an unfortunate reality since recycling is an excellent means to maximize profitability while reducing waste. In fact, the part of the downstream usage chain where recycling can be most effective is at the distributor level. Furthermore, distributors can be an integral link in a process referred to as the “greenstream.”
Acrilex is a producer and distributor of custom-coloured acrylics and custom-configured acrylic fixtures. For it, the “greenstream” is defined as: “the multi-level model which demonstrates eco-awareness and responsibility at all levels of the materials chain, including manufacturing of raw materials, distribution, utilization, consumption, reuse, disposal, and recycling.”
Deciding which processes take place at which level to ensure the most eco-friendly and responsible approaches to being “green” should, in fact, be determined by where an organization fits within this “greenstream.”
Acrilex’s experience is an excellent example of this philosophy. It transforms plastic sheets and plastic products into parts and end products that are purchased by customers. In the process, waste is generated. Since Acrilex doesn’t have a use for that waste internally, it would historically find its way into landfills, as it would with most distributors.
Besides the fact that the “green-stream”approach has an obviously positive impact on the environment, there are various reasons to participate in this initiative. The excess material and scrap generated can be sold back to manufacturers, or to specialty plastic recycling companies, who will then sell it to manufacturers. In doing so, a new revenue stream is created. So recycling plastic scrap is not only environmentally responsible, but it can translate to cold, hard cash. In other words, being “green” can lead to “green” – that is – profit.
And it’s not only scrap that can become an integral part of a distributor’s “greenstream” process. Many distributors have excess inventory and damaged goods that manufacturers won’t take back as product. Consequently, many distributors have traditionally been left with little option but to dispose of their excess in landfills. By recycling it as scrap on the other hand, the distributor can turn useless items into added revenue, while providing manufacturers with much-needed raw material – all with virtually no environmental impact.
Distributors are in a unique position
It should be noted that distributors are in a unique position to take advantage of both sides of the “greenstream” chain. Collecting their own scrap and selling it back to manufacturers or third-party companies is one side; but distributors also have the opportunity to position themselves as a resource to companies further down the supply chain.
For example, many end users, such as plastic fabricators, sign shops, display and fixture manufacturers, have scrap of their own that they may want disposed of, but either they do not know where to send it or, more likely, they are not willing to expend the time and money to set up a comprehensive recycling program. As a value-added service, distributors can offer to pick up this scrap from resellers, end users, and even customers who need a way to get rid of their mistakes, prototypes, and excess materials. In doing so, the distributor not only acquires more scrap for sale, but further solidifies its business relationships with the companies being helped. What’s more, by removing waste the customer would otherwise have to pay to dispose of, the distributor is actually helping those customers become part of the “greenstream,” even if they would not otherwise be considered “green” by manufacturing standards.
Of course there are some energy costs associated with the collection, sale and distribution of scrap (cost of gas to transport the material, labour to collect it, etc.) But these are minor compared to the potential revenue that can be generated combined with the positive impact on the environment.
The Acrilex example
Acrilex has a number of different levels of recycling, all stemming from its dual role as both a plastic manufacturer and a distributor. As distributor, it handles multiple types of plastic. Some scrap – excess sheet scrap and the skeleton remains that come off CNC routers – are placed on skids, palletized and stored. This scrap is warehoused until the company can maximize the economics of shipping it out (i.e., make it the most worthwhile for the buyers by maximizing their fuel consumption and minimizing their shipping costs).
Another thing Acrilex does is pack all of its cutoffs in gaylord boxes. It relies on previously used gaylord boxes that usually come from other polymer suppliers. These gaylords are reused and skids are reused so that the company doesn’t have to purchase (or dispose of) either item.
The final form of our scrap is plastic sawdust – predominantly acrylic – which is generated during the plastics to fabrication process. Currently, Acrilex is keeping over 80 tons of this plastic sawdust out of landfills. It’s accumulated by our dust collectors and picked up by a manufacturer who utilizes it as filler/binder for the product they’re extruding.”
Further, as a manufacturer, unused waste monomer will be polymerized, or solidified, and resold as scrap for recycling. This eliminates the chemical hazard while providing material for recycling, and no dumping is required. Additionally, excess sheets of Acriglas (damaged sheets or ones that cannot be sold) have an aftermarket in recycling or as inexpensive, unusual sheet goods overseas.
It should be noted that many companies will group all their scraps together and send them out en masse; that is, with all dissimilar polymer scrap being lumped together in the same containers. This doesn’t necessarily help the “greenstream” because at some point somebody is going to have to reprocess or re-sort it just to categorize it – thus reducing the overall value of the scrap. What’s more, contaminants will often end up in the scrap material which can ultimately pollute the end product. Therefore, one of the most critical things a distributor (or anyone recycling materials) can do is categorize their scrap.
Establishing an effective “greenstream” initiative
The first element in the process of establishing a “greenstream” is for distributors to ask themselves if they truly care about creating a more environmentally responsible profile. Let’s face it: distributors are not compelled by any regulations to be part of the “green” movement – unlike manufacturers, for example, who are often required to use a certain percentage of recyclable materials. Frankly, some distributors might feel as if they are absolved of any environmental responsibility or any need at all to advance their level of sustainability. There are no requirements for any of their own materials because they’re not going directly to the consumer; as a result, they are not compelled to provide avenues for consumers to recycle.
However, if a distributor does have the requisite social conscience, the next step is to figure out what a company is set to gain financially. As far as a distributor is concerned, it’s a volunteer program, and most businesses won’t volunteer unless there is an economic advantage. Thus it’s vital for the company to determine how much scrap it produces, as well as the possible value of that scrap in an aftermarket scenario. It also needs to be determined as to whether the distributor has the resources, as well as the will, to establish efficient collection, storage and transport processes, and whether the distributor’s own customers can participate. By doing so, valuable new revenue streams can be created. And these new revenue streams are particularly attractive, as they are derived from materials and product that has already been paid for.
None of this should suggest that Acrilex is 100 percent “green.” However, it is constantly looking for practical ways to be “greener” in daily operations. It is an ongoing effort, one that is never really complete and one which Acrilex take quite seriously. Making the company more eco-friendly – as well as helping customers to do the same – will remain a top corporate priority, regardless of the economic climate.
In fact, the worse the economy, the bigger the payoff that can be realized by adopting a “green” frame of mind.
Dan Rustin is director of new product development for Acrilex.