Paper or plastic? At Novolex, increasing the recycled content in its paper and plastic products satisfies consumers’ demands for sustainability and helps the bottom line.
By Katie Pyzyk (Scrap Magazine, www.scrap.org)
The Novolex flagship facilities in North Vernon, Ind., and Florence, Ky., may be housed in nondescript industrial buildings, but the engineering and manufacturing feats occurring inside are far from ordinary. “It is an engineering miracle that a [plastic] bag that weighs 5 grams can hold 17 [or] 18 pounds,” says Mark Daniels, senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for the company based in Hartsville, S.C. From freshly blown plastic film to paper that’s folded into bags in the blink of an eye, the company produces “flexible packaging” products—as opposed to rigid containers—that touch the majority of American consumers by carrying a variety of goods they purchase. “In every conceivable way that you have different retailers coming into your home, whether it’s delivery…using bags to bring groceries to your door, or you going to the store, you’re using a paper bag or plastic bag,” Daniels says.
But paper and plastic shopping bags are just two of its flexible packaging products. Others include paper bags with see-through sections for cookies, doughnuts, sandwiches, rotisserie chickens, and bread; pharmaceutical packages; wraps for foods like butter and candy; lawn and leaf bags; grease-resistant, single-serving restaurant bags; trash can liners; deli paper; produce bags; and thermal coffee cup sleeves used by big-name retail chains, grocery stores, and fast food restaurants.
A Push for Recycled Content
Novolex has worked to increase the levels of recycled content in its products as U.S. consumers’ demand for such items grows. The public’s desire to become more environmentally conscious means “sustainability is key to a lot of retailers’ and grocers’ initiatives now,” according to Daniels. Projecting a green image is so attractive that some major chains have completely abandoned white paper bags made solely from virgin materials and instead have adopted colored bags with recycled content. Some even prefer bags with small, colored specks that seem to clearly display the recycled fibers. “As the millennials come up, they want to see that natural product,” says Chris Karwacki, vice president of paper sourcing and supply chain.
Novolex meets individual customers’ paper packaging needs by working with its partner mills to devise just the right product with the right amount of recycled content “that is equal to or nearly equivalent to what a virgin bag would be, so in performance you don’t see a difference,” Karwacki says.
Certainly, upping the recycled content of paper products can pose challenges. First, paper fibers can be recycled only four to six times before losing their structural integrity. Anything more than that and “it just dissolves in the beater at the end of the paper mill,” Karwacki says. “To prevent that from becoming an issue with our bags, where our bags just fall apart, they have a recipe. [The mills] have different ‘lots’ of product in the back” and make the correct blend for each Novolex product.
Another issue is adjusting the graphics stamped onto recycled-content bags. “You can’t just take the exact image we had on a white bag and put it on a brown bag,” Karwacki says. There’s also a bit more ink absorption with recycled paper, but “we’ve now prevented that,” he adds. “We handle that through other chemistry in the bag” to ensure the ink remains on the bag’s surface and doesn’t bleed.
When mixing more recycled fiber content into its paper products, Novolex works to achieve the right balance to maintain quality. Fiber begins losing structural integrity after being recycled four to six times, it says. Ink absorption was initially an issue when printing on paper bags with high recycled content, but Novolex has developed techniques to keep inks on the surface of these bags.
There are some performance benefits, however, to using recycled paper products. “Virgin fiber—sometimes it is a longer fiber and it can be harder to fold, so you have to make sure you don’t crack it or break it,” Karwacki notes. “The recycled fiber’s a little bit shorter, and the way it’s made, it has a little more flexibility. … In some cases we can run it [through production] faster.” Another plus is that with brown bags, the manufacturing process includes fewer harsh chemicals such as bleaching agents.
Novolex consumes nearly 500,000 tons of paper annually across its 13 U.S. and one Mexican paper-converting facilities, and about half contains recycled content. Most of that paper is 100-percent-recycled material, although some has a lower recycled-to-virgin blend. A small amount of the recycled content is postindustrial, but 80 to 90 percent is postconsumer. The majority of products with recycled content are brown paper, which largely is made from old corrugated containers coming from curbside pickup.
Recycled Plastic Closes The Loop
The push for recycled products isn’t solely on the paper side; Novolex uses recycled content in its plastic film products as well. The company has built what it says is the nation’s largest closed-loop plastic bag recycling facility. The Bag-2-Bag facility in North Vernon, Ind., has 70 employees processing recovered polyethylene film into pellets on one side of the building; 200 employees on the other side of the building then use the feedstock pellets to make plastic bags. The facility also ships the recycled plastic pellets to other Novolex plants.
Novolex uses postconsumer film it collects and scrap from its manufacturing operations to produce printed plastic bags for its customers.
The majority of the purchased plastic film scrap—about 90 percent—is postconsumer material arriving in bales from grocery stores that have plastic bag take-back bins inside or in front of the store. Unlike paper fiber, plastics have a nearly infinite recyclability, according to Daniels, or on a more practical scale, they can be recycled “easily over 100 times.” He points out that “this is a thermoplastic, so every time you’re heating it you’re not really breaking that many bonds. It can go through many cycles.”
Plastic bags the company manufactures at the North Vernon plant average about 34-percent recycled content. “I would say that’s high for the industry,” Daniels says. “The deeper the color of the bag, the higher the recycled content we can get into the bag. We’re recycling all the inks and everything like that. We can’t make clear or white out of [film from] the store take-back program.” Novolex has been working to get retailers who purchase its products to switch from white bags to beige or gray because those are colors they easily can produce with recycled content. Customers now are purchasing those bags more often. “I would say four to five years ago we were extruding 70-percent white film. Retailers wanted white film with their logo on it,” Daniels says. “Now we’re at 70-percent colored. So the market has moved to high recycled content.”
In addition to customer color demands, bag thickness and quality can be a barrier to increasing the amount of recycled material. “A lot of plastic bags are 15 microns or 13 microns [thick], … and we want to make sure that we keep the integrity of the film so that the bag performs to its expectations. If we were to have heavier-gauge bags, … if we were to go to a 17-micron bag, for instance, we could get more recycled content into that bag without sacrificing the integrity of the bag,” Daniels explains.
The company accepts and processes all types of polyethylene film, regardless of density. “Think of what you have at home,” Daniels says. “If you were to bring back a dry-cleaning bag, a newspaper bag, and a bread bag, that’s all low density. If you bring back a retail bag or a cereal bag liner, that’s high density. It can be all in the same bale, and we’re able to process that material together.”
About 90 percent of the plastic film scrap Novolex purchases for its Bag-2-Bag facility is postconsumer material from take-back bins (left photo). Handle cutouts (center photo) from the facility’s bagmaking machines also go back into the recycling side of the plant. Workers (right photo) check the film at several stages to remove receipts, stickers, and other problematic materials.
Focus on Film
The North Vernon plant focuses on manufacturing grocery and retail bags, but other Novolex facilities manufacture ice bags, produce bags, film for banners, industrial stretch wrap, and trash can liners in a variety of sizes and thicknesses. The continuously operating recycling facility at North Vernon has two lines—a wet line and a dry line—that together process about 80,000 pounds of plastic film each day. Postindustrial materials generally are clean enough to go through the dry line, but postconsumer materials have to go through a series of washes on the wet line due to the higher level of contaminants, such as stickers or receipts. That material first goes through a shredder to break it down into more manageable pieces. It moves on to the first wash cycle, which consists of a float system that allows usable polyethylene to rise, while contaminants sink and are removed. Next, the material heads to a wet grinder to further break it down before the next cleaning cycle. Finally, it goes through a filter press to compress out all the wash cycle water.
Once the washed material is dried, it goes through essentially the same processing as items on the dry line. A dry grinder reduces it to finely ground plastic flakes; the small film pieces resemble fluttering snowflakes as they transfer between machines and into silos. Then screw and barrel machinery keeps the plastic moving while melting it into a poly-liquid consistency. From there, the material goes through a pelletizer, creating the recycled plastic feedstock.
Once it has been washed, film goes through a dry grinder that reduces it to plastic flakes, which are melted, extruded, and pelletized.
The facility collects its own bag manufacturing scrap and recycles it on the other side of the plant, creating a closed-loop process with “very, very [little] waste or loss,” boasts Troy Cook, recycle plant operations manager. “All the handle cutouts that are coming from the bagmaking machines … get sent here, and we’ll put them right back into the recycle process.”
The manufacturing process mixes the recycled-film pellets with other resin pellets—containing both recycled and virgin materials—that the company has purchased from other suppliers. The specific mix varies according to each individual customer’s bag specifications. Next the pellets stream to the blowers. Mesmerizing stalks of blown film stretch from the first floor to the second through holes in the ceiling. From a distance, they appear to be thick, static plastic tubes. But closer examination reveals that the tubes actually are delicate films racing to the second level at surprising speeds. Even more surprising is how infrequently the stalks break, but it does happen. One speck of dirt can cause a tear that takes down an entire film balloon, and workers on both floors will work together to restring the machine.
One of the most significant challenges with film manufacturing is getting the chemistry right to ensure the recycled feedstock pellet quality is homogeneous. Moisture can be another problem. Cook explains that if a drop of moisture in a pellet makes it into the film manufacturing machinery, it can cause a blowout. “That’s the challenge,” Daniels says. “You’re using water to clean the material and separate any paper and contaminants out of the polyethylene. Then you’ve got to dry the heck out of it. There’s a lot of processing it goes through.”
The pellets get combined with other recycled and virgin resin pellets (left) in mixes that vary according to customers’ specifications. Tall extrusion bubbles (center) stretch to the ceiling in the bagmaking process. With a small extruder in the testing lab (right), Novolex runs hourly tests on recycled pellet samples.
The 92 extruders run different colors of film based on customer demand—typically white, gray, yellow, and blue. Machines flatten the cylindrical stalks up on the second floor and string them onto huge rolls; keeping a consistent tension on the rolls is another crucial step, Cook says. “The last thing we want is a lot of play on there because it leads to a fluffy roll and doesn’t convert into bags very well,” he explains. The rolls then move on to the bagmaking machines, where the film is stamped with logos, gusseted, cut into bag segments, sealed at the bottom, and handles are pressed out. Finally, stacks of bags go to the packaging section, where they undergo a series of tests for factors like seals and ease of opening. “Customers get pretty mad when the bags are all stuck together,” Cook says with a chuckle.
The Economics of Scrap Film Collection
Novolex has found recycling film into resin pellets to make new plastic products saves the company money. “If we wanted to, we could sell that material instead of use it,” Daniels says. He notes that virgin resin has been about 74 cents a pound for the past several years, and “for us to buy material from a [grocery] store, transport it here, go through this whole process, and send it out to our other facilities, [it costs us] less than the cost of virgin resin. The actual amount fluctuates, but it’s consistently less than the virgin cost.”
Although Novolex does purchase some postindustrial plastic scrap from brokers across the country, about 90 percent of the scrap it purchases for bag manufacturing is postconsumer collected through its own bag take-back program, which it operates primarily through grocery stores east of the Rocky Mountains. The company has storage trailers sitting at grocery bag distribution centers to collect the returned bags; when a trailer is full, Novolex pays to transport it to the North Vernon recycling plant, paying the supplier for the value of the material by weight. The company relies on independent shipping companies rather than maintaining its own fleet of trucks.
The current system also has proven more economical for Novolex than procuring the scrap from materials recovery facilities. “By separating film from store take-back programs ourselves, we get in excess of 85-percent yield. And if we buy scrap from a MRF, we’re getting less than 50-percent yield,” Daniels says. “Market prices for mixed, clean film bales are approximately 15 to 17 cents a pound; stretch film is higher than [25 cents] a pound, and we get good yield.” Much of the discrepancy is due to MRFs dealing with weightier commingled materials including metals and glass, but typically not with the light plastic films. “A MRF would be able to sell at similar price levels if they were to invest in the technology to separate, clean, and bale the polyethylene plastic bags and wraps,” Daniels adds.
Even though it doesn’t buy film from them, Novolex realizes that collaborating with MRFs on educational campaigns is mutually beneficial. For example, most MRFs do not accept film, but Novolex needs it for its recycling operation. Educating the public about proper film recycling procedures keeps the material out of MRFs and flowing into Novolex facilities.
Novolex’s extruding machines run different colors of film based on customer demand. Beige and gray bags are easier to produce with recycled content, and the deeper the color of the bag, the higher the proportion of recycled material it can use.
What Lies Ahead
The plastics industry faces growing pressure, not just from rocky scrap commodity markets, but also from municipalities increasingly eager to instate plastic bag bans. Daniels notes that educational campaigns such as the A Bag’s Life website (www.abagslife.com), which teaches kids about bag recycling, help residents and politicians understand that plastic film can be recycled instead of banned, which could make interest in bans wane.
In addition, the company continues to devise and manufacture new products for its already diverse product line as the markets change. “Novolex has a robust research and development department that investigates flexible packaging alternatives to traditional packaging across the markets in which we participate,” Daniels says. “We develop … cost-effective alternatives to current food and retail packaging.” Constantly looking for new market expansion opportunities creates balance for other areas that might experience a dip.
One of those newer areas includes expanding its portfolio of recycled-content products for direct food contact. “We want to be very careful with food contact. We’re in trials and manufacturing some [products] with high recycled content for food contact. So that’s kind of the next evolution,” Daniels says. This and other sustainability initiatives have “helped our company grow, and it will continue to help our company grow because we’re doing the right things in an ethical manner that’s good for the consumer and for the environment.”
Despite an expanding footprint, Novolex strives to maintain an employee-focused business. That’s one reason it does extensive research before acquiring other businesses. “We’re very conscious about not going in and trying to disrupt the good things that those companies have built,” Daniels says. “Every one of those people that work for those companies is now a Novolex family member.”
Time and again, managers mention the diligent workers at their plants and reiterate their desire to provide for them. The company constantly seeks out areas for improvement—both in operations and employee satisfaction—and managers realize that suggestions for positive change often lie with employees on the floor. That’s what prompts supervisors to meet with workers regularly, sometimes weekly, to get feedback for improvement. “That’s the kind of relationship we have,” says Florence plant manager John Owens. “They’re the experts. We talk to them and find out what’s going on, and we try to help them and take their ideas and get the right fixes in place.” That “can-do” mentality also helps the company ride out rough periods in a volatile commodities market. Despite such challenges, Novolex continues “to look at acquisitions that would make sense for the company, to continue to amplify our strengths,” Daniels says.
The business model appears to work. The company remains afloat despite challenges like the recent U.S. recession. “In 2008, we didn’t see a downturn,” Daniels says. “Consumers were still buying; they just had different habits.”
Throughout all the growth and development, Novolex leadership strives to retain employees and keep them satisfied. “We’re very reticent to let people go, and we’re very careful about bringing people on,” Daniels says. “We want to take care of you as long as you choose to work for Novolex.” Owens agrees, noting, “We’re trying to promote from within and keep people strong.” Novolex managers hope that the employee-focused culture and the careful calculations behind new ventures have created a business model that will allow the company to remain an industry leader well into the future.
The Novolex Beginnings
Novolex got its start as plastics manufacturer Hilex Poly in 2003, when it acquired Sonoco Products Co.’s (Hartsville, S.C.) high-density film products division. It has continued to grow through acquisitions of other major plastics companies, such as Vanguard Plastics (which started in St. Louis) in 2005. “We want to acquire companies that are leading in their industry, but also make sense to our core target markets,” says Mark Daniels, senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy.
In 2014, Novolex acquired Duro Bag Manufacturing Co. (Florence, Ky.) and, later in the year, Packaging Dynamics Corp. (Chicago) to become a $1.9 billion company. Those moves marked the company’s first forays into paper packaging. Also last year, Hilex Poly changed its name to Novolex while retaining the brand names of its individual product lines. The company now comprises 35 facilities and 5,000 employees in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.