From the beaches of Curacao to a facility in rural North Carolina, plastics found in the ocean or bound for landfills are getting reused and turned into new materials to help alleviate the wasteful effects of the product.
In Curacao, a small company called Limpi Recycling is working with Sandals International to turn found ocean plastic and fishing nets into soccer goals for kids. Meanwhile, Polywood, based in Indiana and North Carolina, turns plastic that would otherwise end up in the ocean or landfills into sleek outdoor patio equipment.
It’s all part of a new focus on alleviating the plastics and turning the rubbish into usable materials. In many instances, wasted plastic ends up along coastal areas, floating in giant patches in the ocean, or in landfills dotted near rural communities.
It’s estimated that up to 380 million tons of plastics are produced each year, much of which are single-use plastics, according to nonprofit organization Plastic Oceans Internations.
Polywood was founded in 1990 by a couple of high school buddies in a garage in Indiana. It was right around the time the The Keep America Beautiful campaign was in full effect and curbside recycling was taking off throughout the U.S. This led to the availability of tons of recycled plastic as a resource in need of an end product, said Brady Maller, executive vice president of strategy and sales, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
“Polywood CEO Doug Rassi’s entrepreneurial solution to these growing mountains of plastic was to invent a way to convert it into something useful and long-lasting,” he said. “Lumber has always been an important commodity, and the indestructible characteristics of plastic that make it a problem for the environment also make it a solution for things like outdoor furniture where you want products to be durable and stand up to the elements like rain, sun, and salt without degrading.”
In 2016, the company shifted from purchasing shredded plastic from third-party suppliers to creating their own recycling line so that they would have more control over the quality of raw material and the environmental impact of the operations. Two years later they opened a second facility in another rural region, Roxboro, North Carolina, population 8,000..
“This allowed us to better keep up with growing customer demand while lowering the environmental impact and time of shipping by sending furniture from the facility closest to its final destination,” said Maller.
Curacao’s Latest Recycling Initiative’s Social Impact
In Curacao, an island nation located in the Caribbean Sea 40 miles from the coast of Venezuela, the company Limpi – which means clean in the local language of Papiamiento – makes beautiful creations, including keychains, bracelets, lamps and soon, patio furniture, out of plastic found in the ocean.
It recently started its most ambitious project yet: creating soccer goals made from recycled plastic waste and nets lost at sea. The goals are being placed throughout the island as part of an initiative from the Sandals Resorts International and AFC Ajax known as Future Goals.
“We knew that Curaçao was the perfect place to hit the ground running,” said Heidi.
Clarke, executive director of the Sandals Foundation. “Sandals Resorts was gearing up to debut its first-ever resort on the island and with the existing relationship between AFC Ajax and Curaçao, starting our Future Goals journey there was the perfect match for this groundbreaking partnership. Our existing relationship with Limpi Recycling brought the vision from prototype to reality. Curaçao is just our starting point, and we are eager to expand Future Goals into a Carribean-wide program.”
Over the past few years, the four-person operation at Limpi Recycling has created more than 45,000 products and more than 2.5 tons of plastic has been recycled.
“When we visited Curacao in 2015, it was a real eye opener to see all the plastic that was being washed ashore on the north side of the island,” said Debrah Nijdam.
“That’s when we decided, ‘let’s create our own machines and make new products from plastic waste,’” she said. “We’ll see where it takes us: we will create awareness on the problem and make new products and it quickly turned into a business because we got a lot of responses and orders and people wanted to make this and that.”
Plastic Affects Food and Food Chains
At Polywood, landfill-bound and ocean-bound high-density polyethylene plastics – the type found in milk jugs, detergent containers and shampoo bottles – arrive at the company’s recycling plant bundled in large bales. At this stage, any plastic scraps of Polywood lumber from the production process are also reintroduced into the stream. The plastic is flattened and sent to a massive shredder, then those shredded flakes are washed.
Next, any colored plastics that they don’t want to be mixed into the final product are sorted and removed. The desirable material that remains are turned into pellets, which are mixed with color before being extruded to the shape and size of the lumber they’re working with. Finally, the team takes that recycled lumber and uses it to build the Polywood outdoor furniture that is shipped to customers and retailers throughout the country, Maller said.
“Farming communities in particular are at the heart of America’s food chain,” Maller said. “Unchecked plastic waste that spills into the waterways and fills up landfills could easily end up where farmers don’t need it.”
Plastic pollution in the ocean can also affect food chains, ending up in fish that people eat. Consuming plastic by marine animals is increasingly problematic, with litter turning up in the bellies of wildlife as varied as mammals, birds, turtles and fish, according to Stanford University researchers.
An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year, according to EarthDay.org.
At the end of life, plastic waste is a pollution crisis, said Lindsay Christinee, a delegate for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
“It can accumulate in drains or canals and cause flooding,” she said.”When it’s burned – since less than 9% of it is recycled – it releases toxic chemicals into the air. A lot of these incinerators are in rural, economically insecure areas. And, all of our plastic trash isn’t simply remaining in landfills or even on land or in our rivers. It’s traveling. It’s polluting our oceans. The Delaware River is a major river in the tri-state area beginning in the Catskills and is one of the biggest polluters of plastic waste into the Atlantic Ocean. Some researchers estimate that it dumps [more than] 200,000 pounds of plastic waste alone into the Atlantic.”
Critics of the plastic industry also say it has oversold the practicality of recycling to avoid limits on plastics manufacturing and use.
Economic Driver to Small Towns
Polywood’s Syracuse, Indiana, facility is an economic driver to the area. It employs almost 1,000 people at the headquarters, Maller said.
“Many of these team members would otherwise have to travel over an hour each way to work in the closest city, Fort Wayne, for a comparable job,” he added.
In addition, last year the company expanded their operations in Roxboro, North Carolina, investing $61.6 million to build additional capacity at the manufacturing and distribution center. This is projected to create 300 jobs over five years.
In combination with the economic development piece, education also takes place. Maller said company leaders know recycling as a habit starts young, so they partner with local schools on recycling education programs, and when students collect 1,000 milk jugs, Polywood send the school one of their benches.
“This encourages students to spend more time outdoors, fostering community,” he said. “We created the company as a way to do something meaningful for future generations, and we are so inspired by how the students have embraced recycling as second nature.”