Blue Mountain Plastics closes the loop
Plastic collected from Blue Bin initiatives is processed into food-grade bottles for Ice River Springs water.
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Plain or fizzy, people like their bottled water. In Canada, its share of the beverage market almost doubled from 5% to 9.1% between 2000 and 2006. Of course, there are a lot of regular folks and vocal environmentalists who don’t care much for the bottles. They see the plastic containers as a blight on the landscape or a waste of space in landfills.
The thing is, water bottles and other plastic beverage containers are recyclable and according to the Canadian Bottled Water Association. 70% of them (2010 data) are recycled and account for 0.02% of the total waste stream.
Thanks to more advanced recycling technology and municipalities ramping up residential recycling initiatives, plastic bottles have been good for Ice River Springs, a bottled water producer based in Feversham, Ont. It has closed the loop, becoming the first company in North America to manufacture it’s own polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin from re-purposed plastic to produce 100% recycled bottles.
Located about two and a half hours north-west of Toronto, the company has been serving up its fresh spring water from a protected source for 15 years, growing into seven bottling facilities in Canada – including two in Ontario – and the US.
To lessen its environmental impact in an industry where carbon footprint has been historically high, the company has set up a closed-loop recycling and manufacturing subsidiary at a 110,000 square-foot facility in Shelburne, Ont. Called Blue Mountain Plastics, it handles more than 80% of Ontario’s Blue Bin recyclables.
“Customers offered feedback on how to reduce the environmental impact of our products and make the whole operation more sustainable,” says Ryan L’Abbe, Blue Mountain’s vice-president and general manager.
This led to a couple of options: purchase recycled material, or make its own. The choice was option B.
A sophisticated supply chain
Blue Mountain buys its materials from Ontario’s municipalities and manufactures a resin called recycled PET (or RPET), a process encompassing a sophisticated supply chain operation that wasn’t easy to put together.
The concept became a finalized business plan by 2009 and trips to Europe followed during which the company’s key players met with Amut, an Italian manufacturer of plastic extrusion systems, and Starlinger, an Austrian manufacturer of complete extrusion lines for recycling plants. After examining different wash and extrusion options, the Canadians committed to one that involved washing the bottles, then grinding them.
L’Abbe says this achieves a higher quality grind.
“It was a really expensive venture and we wanted it to be as automated as possible, so we started looking at the whole supply chain: how material is recycled, what kind of technology we need, and how we would source our materials to get them into a food-grade form.”
And it was imperative the entire operation was completely closed-loop.
“We sent trucks to Toronto almost everyday,” says L’Abbe. “Now, we use those trucks to backhaul a load of recycled materials for the plant in Shelburne.”
That one change closed the production loop. Not only did Blue Mountain cut its environmental footprint by recycling household plastic waste from Canada’s largest municipality, it racked up a bit of a profit.
Today, the entire Ice River Springs operation starts in Shelburne, where trucks deliver up to 50 million pounds of recycled materials a year. It’s sorted, washed, ground and bagged, then sent to Feversham where a team of eight workers use self-manufactured preforms and Starlinger purification equipment to blow the 100% recycled, food-grade water bottles. They’re filled, labelled, capped and delivered.
Blue Mountain’s operation, which handles 8,000 pounds of PET an hour, is automated, making it efficient while ensuring a higher degree of quality control.
“When you need a clear container, [TiTech] optical sorters are more reliable because there’s so many different kinds of plastics; human sorters can’t tell the difference,” he says. “This operation has such a high capacity that it needs to be as efficient as possible to achieve the required level of purity to meet food-grade standards.”
Baled recyclables are sent through the sorters, which separate clear and blue plastics from green.
“We can’t take the colours out of plastic, and we want clear materials for water bottles,” says maintenance lead Justin Gott. “Blue blends in with the clear and helps with the rest of the process because it acts like a dye. When we reheat the preform, it takes heat better, requires less energy and keeps the bottle from yellowing.”
The bottles go through an Amut-powered wash line where they’re sanitized and cleansed of labels and glue. Typical recycling lines use up to 10 litres of water to clean one kilogram of flake. Blue Mountain’s lines operate at a 1:1 ratio.
After cleaning, two streams of materials are left: one blue and clear; the other green. The green materials are baled and sold to reproducers like Signode Packaging Systems, which has a facility in Markham, Ont. It uses the green waste to manufacture strapping for palletizing and bundling applications.
Blue and clear plastic goes to a wet grinder and turned into flake, then it’s sent to a tank where the RPET sinks. Unwanted organics float to the top and are skimmed off.
A friction washer removes the remaining organics, then the RPET goes to a rinsing chamber. Dry flake is sent along an Eriez magnetic conveyor that removes metal materials, such as aluminium. The flake is sorted again for transparency, bagged and sent to Feversham where it’s melted and formed into bottles that weigh less than 10 grams.
This operation is in motion 24 hours a day, five days a week, handling more than 4.7 tonnes an hour.
Such a capacity requires a lot of materials, which in the early days didn’t come easily for the Blue Mountain crew.
“The recycling industry has changed a lot since we started,” says Gott. “There’s a lot of partnerships nowadays, but the big thing with municipalities is that they generate material that needs to be sold quickly; they need someone who can pick up a load every day.”
He says getting Blue Mountain’s line up to speed was a challenge.
Major material handlers
“We couldn’t handle the [amount of] material we’d hoped in the beginning and that was an issue with the municipalities – they were selling elsewhere because they were skeptical we could buy as much as they wanted to sell,” he says.
Although they weren’t sure about the mechanical capabilities of the line, a few open houses showing off the material recycling facilities helped to convince the municipalities and secure the supply.
These days, the company handles up to 80% of Ontario’s blue-bin materials.
Gott concedes that the RPET production line consumes a significant amount of energy, but the company is examining ways of becoming more energy efficient.
“We’ve got 50,000 square feet of equipment running here. We can’t say the line doesn’t consume a lot of energy because it does,” he says. “But we’ve placed a fair bit of focus on solar power, which is already on at the bottling facility in Feversham.”
Gott considers Blue Mountain to be a work in process. The learning curve has been long, but the company is always looking for ways to be better at what it does. And there may be another business opportunity creating a new market for the unusable by-products that are so plentiful, making the world even greener, one bottle at a time.
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This article appears in the September 2012 issue of PLANT