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Published in Manufacturing
HydroBlox Technologies Inc. products made from recycled plastics. HydroBlox Technologies Inc. products made from recycled plastics. COURTESY PHOTO

West Michigan Goodwill launches joint venture to recycle landfill-bound plastics

BY Wednesday, June 01, 2022 06:21pm

A newly established partnership will allow Goodwill Industries of West Michigan Inc. to reduce plastic materials that are plentiful in its current waste stream.

The nonprofit organization last month announced a new joint venture with HydroBlox Technologies Inc., a Pittsburgh, Pa.-area company that recycles plastics to manufacture products used for stormwater drainage or infrastructure projects like roads, trails and retaining walls.

Together, the two organizations will open a production facility in Muskegon County to convert unwanted plastic products into HydroBlox products, which come in both noodle and plank forms.

Jeanette Hoyer, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of West Michigan (GIWM), said the two organizations are in negotiations with a potential facility but was unable to provide additional details until the deal is completed.

The combined organization looks to start operations in Muskegon County in late fall of 2022 and will be looking to fill six jobs.

Goodwill can provide a steady flow of raw materials through donated plastic items that are unable to be sold on the secondary market. This includes items such as laundry baskets, broken totes, toys and other materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

“If they couldn’t be sold or there wasn’t a secondary market, they were being thrown away,” Hoyer said of the plastic materials. “Our goal is really to find new, wanted and valuable products that we can turn our waste streams into.”

Through its existing recycling services, GIWM recycled more than 8.3 million pounds of materials in 2022, including 13,800 pounds of recycled electronics. However, the steady flow of unused plastics from donations has posed a dilemma for the organization.

“Our donation stream, we’re getting less valuable things,” Hoyer said. “People and companies have found many more ways to turn their things into value for them. And so we have got to continue to be the best place to bring all your things that are hard to take care of or recycle.”

“This is really foundational in terms of plastics,” Hoyer added. “That’s one of our biggest concerns. We’re also working on projects in wood and glass, but this is really the first that we’ll get up and running.”

A purpose for plastic

GIWM Business Development Director Nick Carlson echoed Hoyer’s sentiment on plastic becoming an often-wasted resource for the organization, stemming back to 2017 when China drastically cut back on importing plastic waste from the United States, changing the dynamic of the market drastically.

“It was very difficult to find markets to move our mixed residential plastics,” Carlson said. “There was some domestic capacity, but the value was so low that it was actually so much more costly for us to package it and get it ready for shipment than it was to just throw it in the landfill. It was cost prohibitive.”

Working through a trio of recycling-minded organizations — NextCycle Michigan, the Michigan Recycling Coalition and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy — Carlson grew aware of HydroBlox, which for 14 years has been using recycled plastic waste to create its line of products.

“That entire time, I’ve been trying to find a really good solution to get our plastics out of the landfills and there is no better solution than being able to take that product in hand and make it into a new product before it leaves your facility,” Carlson said. “You’re not transporting the stuff all over the place. This solution is, hands down, the best solution I’ve ever been able to find for plastics.”

The timing also was advantageous for HydroBlox founder and CEO Ed Grieser, who said new factories are necessary to deal with the ongoing influx of plastic. Aside from two locations in Pennsylvania, Grieser said new facilities are coming online in the Seattle area as well as in Florida and Texas.

“Everything we make, it’s paid for before it’s even fabricated,” Grieser said of his in-demand products. “This was the right time to be (expanding).”

“Companies now have realized we’re paying all this money to landfill and incinerate (plastics). It’s really expensive and it’s really not a good look,” he added.

Grieser, whose company receives plastic material from two other Goodwills throughout the country, said he initially kicked around the idea of GIWM shipping its plastic to Pennsylvania. But it made more sense to expand, especially with the availability of both people and raw materials in Michigan.

Under the new partnership, Grieser and HydroBlox will handle sales and sourcing while GIWM will handle back office work with its existing staff.

“We’re taking stuff that would be landfilled and, what separates us, is that we’re properly commercialized,” Grieser said. “In other words, I’m not trying to take your plastic and make more plastic. Our end product is HydroBlox, which is fantastic for storm water and underneath roads and that product is a success and can stand on its own two feet.”

“If it comes into my buildings, it’s going out as HydroBlox — it’s not going out as trash,” Grieser added. “We’re not the greenwashing people. We’re the honest-to-God, legitimate thing here.”

As GIWM prepares to remove plastic from its waste stream, the organization will eventually turn its vision to other materials. Hoyer and Carlson said the organization is already working with an Israeli company called Daika Wood, which recycles wood products by grinding them up and using an all-natural additive to form new products. Goodwill also is considering ways to recycle glass.

“Starting with the more difficult things that we were throwing in the garbage made most sense,” Carlson said. “Moving from there, we’ll continue to evaluate what’s going into our waste stream and innovate to keep it out.”

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