Master Recyclers Tour Agilyx Inc.
This Tigard business is about so much more than a drop box for recycling Styrofoam (But that is neat too)
From “football fields” of blocks used for forestry seedlings to utensils, cups and clam shells from Edgefield events, Agilyx Inc. combines innovative technology and business relationships to turn ten tons a day of polystyrene discards back into a product that is useful to manufacturers to make new stuff!
This week a group of 14 Master Recyclers explored how Agilyx is increasing capacity to recycle plastic, giving North Westerners hope about recycling at a time when it is much needed.
The Master Recycler Program organizes tours for graduates of the class as part of the ongoing training program. Master Recyclers have explored local recyclers, the landfill in Arlington and non-profit efforts over the years. Where should we go next? Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Plastic Recycling Challenge
We have been hearing a lot about international recycling woes. While the list of curbside recycling in the Portland metro region has not changed, we now must pay more to recycle. We have also been hearing about other Cities in Oregon who have not been able to foot the bill to keep recycling materials and so have had to change their recycling list. Meanwhile, plastics we grew accustomed to bringing to recycling depots, now belong in the garbage.
All of this can be disheartening.
A big reason for this crisis is that recycling plastic is a tricky business.
Manufacturers who make products from virgin plastic are accustomed to a specialized product. That is because the plastic is made from a crude oil or natural gas. This crude is manipulated at the molecular level with additives. The molecular tinkering results in thousands of combinations of material that can meet the specific needs of a manufacturer. It can be brittle or durable; clear or opaque. The plastic recyclers' challenge is to take this myriad of materials and try to turn them back into something that manufacturers can use again. And these variations are mostly not compatible with one another.
You wouldn’t want to buy a gallon of milk that comes in a brittle jug. So, the plastic we put in our recycle carts must be sorted out, repurposed, and then sent to the right manufacturer.
To add to the challenge, much of the technology used in the US to sort plastic relies on comparing the density of a product, but the type of molds used to give plastic shape also affects the density of the material. This means that materials made from the same original crude may have differing additives and differing densities, making it an expensive and tedious process to sort out.
The job of sorting was increasingly outsourced to China who either sorts with more sophisticated laser optic technology that can accommodate the wide variation in materials, or more often, sorts the material with human labor. The Chinese government was feeling public pressure to stop the horrible health and environmental costs that resulted from the demand for sorting this material and decided to be more selective about the materials that they accept.
Why Agilyx is different
Master Recycler tour attendees learned why Agilyx is saying ‘yes’ to one specific plastic (polystyrene (#6)) at a time when more and more materials must go in the garbage.
The tour started in a conference room where Project Engineer, John Desmarteau walked through the philosophy and science of what Agilyx does.
Instead of trying to chip and melt the plastics, John explained, Agilyx uses a process called pyrolysis. Agilyx takes the polystyrene and breaks it back down to the basic molecular building blocks so that they can be reused in a similar way that the original virgin material was. Pyrolysis allows Agilyx to tinker with the products and meet the specific needs of the manufacturers.
He also pointed out that making products from their product requires 50% less carbon emissions than manufacturing from raw material. And the material can be recycled over and over again without losing its integrity. So, materials do not have to be downcycled.
The group walked through the facility where they saw the foam polystyrene densified. Then the densified polystyrene and the other polystyrene products were chipped together and put through the pyrolysis machine. There are a few other byproducts that they also sell or use to fuel their operations. There is a small amount of basic carbon that they have yet to find a way to reuse and therefore is landfill bound.
The majority of the material that comes into Agilyx comes from businesses who discard a large quantity of the same product. This partnership allows businesses to recycle material they had to pay to throw away before, meanwhile it provides Agilyx a steady stream of consistent material with minimal sorting. But they do have a 24-hour drop box free to the public. They receive some contamination in this box, so it is important to understand that foam that doesn’t break when you try to bend it does not go in this drop box. Polystyrene foam is brittle and breaks into little pellets. They also accept any plastic that has the number 6 on it.
While touring the site, the group got to see the Lab Manager, Julia Roubidoux, at work. She was meticulously testing materials from a mixed plastic load. Her experiments will help Agilyx improve their products and perhaps expand the type of plastics that they can recycle.
A Piece to the Puzzle
There was an overall impression that employees enjoy working for this innovative company. John and Julia both showed a relish for experimentation. They also indicated that they are proud to be part of a bigger goal of conserving our natural resources and mitigating climate change.
To succeed it will take collaboration between the different stake holders, consumers, business partnerships, waste collectors changing their behaviors. The Master Recycler tour made evident that the tinkering and risk-taking that takes place at Agilyx is expensive. To have more of such innovation, it may take programs like Canada’s product stewardship laws where recycling is subsidized by those who produce products. Agilyx acknowledges that there is much in logistics to get worked out – how does a company with lots of polystyrene get that stuff hauled to Agilyx??
We the general public can help by recycling only what is on a list. If it is curbside, at an event or a drop box, recyclers are telling us what they need and what they can’t take for a reason.
What they want
The public drop box accepts only #6 plastic and easy-to-break foam plastic only.
Some take-aways for Master Recycler projects:
During the tour, Master Recyclers also learned some details that could help on a project you might be working on:
- Business recycling: If you work for a business that discards a large quantity of Styrofoam or other polystyrene plastic. Contact Agilyx to schedule a drop off for them to take the material. You may have to figure out the hauling mechanism, but they are willing to chat.
- A neat trick for event recycling: The Edgefield concert recycling is managed by Broomsman. They work with the vendors to source all of their clamshells, utensils, cups etc to be Polystyrene #6. That way all that material can go in together in the recycling, get rinsed off and be hauled to Agilyx.
- Get out the word: Number 6 plastic has a place to go.
- Collection events: If you are organizing collection events, consider adding polystyrene to materials you collect. Contact Agilyx to see what options might work.