When it comes to caring for our planet, we all have a role. Many manufacturers in the plastics industry take that role very seriously.A Grand Investment logo

In late May, Grand Rapids was host to the Re|focus Sustainability & Recycling Summit. The fourth annual summit put on by the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) brought plastics and equipment manufacturers, plastics processors, consumer products companies and recyclers to town to learn about the newest machinery, innovative materials, and technologies that are helping to “green” the industry.

According to PLASTICS, the industry is moving from being one that simply aspires to sustainability to one that puts its commitment to recycling and reusing into action. The Re|focus Summit challenges brand owners, processors, engineers, product developers, and the entire supply chain to "refocus" on product design, technology, and manufacturing that drive recycling and sustainability. 

Re|focus Summit visited the Kent County Recycling and Education Center for a tour during their conference in Grand Rapids.

Re|focus Summit visited the Kent County Recycling and Education Center for a tour during their conference in Grand Rapids.

Photo by Mark Richardson, Series One, LLC.

Why Grand Rapids?

“We knew we wanted to take Re|focus to the Midwest so we looked at top tier cities around manufacturing hubs, and Grand Rapids emerged as the best option,” said Kim Holmes, Vice President, Sustainability, Plastics Industry Association. “Grand Rapids’ commitment to sustainability made it a good fit for this event.”

West Michigan is home to the 12th largest plastics industry cluster in the United States, employing more than 11,000 people throughout the region. The plastics they manufacture and process serve industries as diverse as the products we all use on a daily basis – from cars to furniture and appliances to bottled beverages. Some of the biggest plastics products manufacturers in the area – including Lacks Industries, Cascade Engineering, and ADAC Automotive – supply, among other things, Michigan’s automotive industry.

West MI Industry Innovations

PLASTICS drew on this strong local industry presence for the Re|focus Summit, scheduling tours of four Cascade Engineering facilities on the opening day of the conference. But it was more than Cascade’s plastics prowess that made them a natural choice for the tours.

As a global manufacturer and one of the largest certified B Corps in the world, Cascade Engineering has a long and unwavering commitment to the Triple Bottom Line (TBL): People, Planet, Profit.

The tour showcased CE’s commitment to sustainability, starting with a visit to its Learning Community, a LEED Platinum Certified building housing their corporate offices, where attendees heard why Cascade is a TBL company.

Cascade describes its commitment to the planet this way: “There’s only one earth, so we do everything possible to reduce our impact on it. We work hard to build a sustainable organization and are committed to continuously reducing waste emissions into the air, land, and water.”

The tour group also visited the Buursma plant, which molds 95, 64, and 32-gallon rolling containers used for solid waste, recycling, and organics collection, and houses their 9000T Battenfeld molding machine – one of the largest presses in the world. The tour wrapped up with stops at Noble Polymers, where the company provides thermoplastic solutions that are both high-performance and eco-friendly, and CE’s 33rd Street facility, which utilizes “Natural Work Teams,” self-directed teams that oversee the entire operation without management supervision.

Cascade’s innovations are representative of the direction PLASTICS would like to lead the industry. Among the association’s pillars is the belief in advancing sustainability and being good stewards of resources.

To that end, they also partnered with the Kent County Department of Public Works to arrange DPW facility tours and get a post-consumer perspective on their members’ products.

Conveyor belt transports plastic at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center.

Conveyor belt transports plastic at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center.

Photo by Mark Richardson, Series One, LLC.

Reimagining Trash

The Kent County DPW serves Kent and surrounding counties. It operates four integrated solid waste management facilities, two of which were in the spotlight at the Re|focus Summit.

Attendees toured the Recycling and Education Center, the primary Kent County materials recovery facility, where residential recycling from curbside bins and drop-off recycling centers is sorted and prepared to be sold to processors and end-users. There, they got a first-hand look at the back end of their products’ life cycle.

They also visited the county’s state-of-the-art Waste to Energy (WTE) plant, where DPW safely incinerates non-hazardous solid wastes from municipal and commercial operations, generating up to 16 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 11,000 area homes.

But beyond generating clean electricity, the WTE facility has diverted more than five million tons of refuse from the landfill since it opened in 1990, extending the landfill life by over 10 years.

The backdrop for all of this is the county’s Reimagine Trash vision. Among the most aggressive county-led sustainability efforts in the nation, Reimagine Trash aims to reduce the area’s landfill waste by 20% by 2020 and 90% by 2030. 

The county estimates that 13% of the waste that it processes each year is plastic. In addition to the environmental costs, the county recognizes the economic impact of tossing plastic in the trash. Following a 2015 study, researchers estimated that the value of the plastic West Michigan throws away each year is more than $20 million.

A group tours the Kent County Recycling and Education Center in Grand Rapids

A group tours the Kent County Recycling and Education Center in Grand Rapids

Photo by Mark Richardson, Series One, LLC.

“If we could do a better job recycling and reducing how much waste we landfill, we could keep thousands of tons of waste from hitting our landfills and natural environment each year,” said Kristen Wieland, Communication & Marketing Manager at the Kent County Department of Public Works. “We could also generate millions of dollars to invest in our communities.”

That’s why Kent County DPW is eager to host groups like the Re|focus Summit.

“We are receiving more and more requests from plastics manufacturers and consumer products companies – local and others – who want to know how we process their products,” said Wieland. “They want this information so they can do a better job designing and manufacturing products with an eye toward sustainability.”

Waste Management Starts with Manufacturers

Wieland points out that management of post-consumer waste begins long before it hits the WTE facility, recycling center or landfill. In fact, it begins with plastics manufacturers and processors like those that toured the DPW facilities.

She explains that a number of things factor into our ability to recycle and the amount we are recycling versus dumping or incinerating. It begins with manufacturers and package designers who determine which materials will be used, how those materials will be combined and whether or not they will be clearly marked for recycling.

“Even the configuration, mix of materials and package labeling play a role,” explained Wieland. “If the packaging is too complicated or isn’t clearly marked, most people will simply throw it away. Those are the kinds of things that consumer products and packaging manufacturers are looking at when they tour our facilities.”

Kent County DPW infographic detailing statistics about their work.

Kent County DPW infographic detailing statistics about their work.

Photo by Kent County Department of Public Works (KCDPW)

Manufacturers are also using lightweighting technology to reduce the amount of plastic – and therefore the amount of natural resources – required to produce a product. Plus, designers are adjusting the shape of packages so more items can fit in a single shipment. Both of these innovations save fuel when products are transported. The bottom line is, today’s package designers are aiming to create plastic containers that can be filled with a product, transported and recycled with the least amount of environmental impact.

Sustainable Business Park

To ramp up industrial recycling and help Kent County reach its Reimagine Trash 2030 goal, DPW plans to develop a 250-acre Sustainable Business Park. The park would attract companies that specialize in reclaiming or converting waste materials that might otherwise be dumped into the landfill into usable materials, such as fuel pellets, plastic flake, compost and more. Complementary businesses, startups and entrepreneurs could then tap into these reclaimed or converted materials and transform them into new products, including clothing, automotive components or animal feed.

Beyond moving Kent County closer to its goal of reducing landfill waste, the park offers tremendous potential to preserve open space, create jobs, foster research, generate renewable energy and help conserve natural resources and protect the quality of our water.

We’ll take a closer look at the plans for the Kent County Sustainable Business Park and the public-private partnerships working to make it a reality in our next installment of “A Grand Investment.”

“A Grand Investment” is an ongoing series exploring the business landscape of Grand Rapids. Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, Grand Rapids is fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investment. This series highlights leading sectors of the local economy and underscores the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings.