Local firms perfecting ways to reuse plastics

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

It’s been more than two years since China stopped accepting plastic waste from the United States, and local sanitation companies have been forced to figure out what to do with the excess.
The urgency to find alternatives for the waste problem has put local company Entek Manufacturing in a key position, and it has also lit a fire under a local engineer to find ways to convert that waste.

Plastics overload
China had been importing plastic waste from the U.S. and other countries since the late 1980s as a source of quality raw materials, reprocessing it into new products such as hoses, shoes, bags, fly swatters, dolls and other items.
Ultimately, it was cheaper for the United States to ship the waste to China than transport it domestically by truck or rail and reprocess it.
Then, in 2017, China announced it would ban mixed-plastic and paper waste at the beginning of 2018. Since then, the country implemented further bans in order to reach a goal of zero solid waste imports by 2020.
“With the loss of Chinese end markets for plastic, plastic recycling has declined in Oregon as a whole and in Lebanon,” said Brian Fuller, manager of solid waste at the state Department of Environmental Quality. “In response to the loss of end markets, some communities in Oregon changed what plastic types are collected.”
In Lebanon, “mixed plastics” were dropped from collection for recycling, he said. Now, the only plastic accepted are bottles, jugs, #5 tubs and pill bottles.

Plastic and other waste materials are piled and prepared for transportation to the landfill.

Today, most plastic waste in Oregon is recycled domestically, and more is going to landfills, he said.
“Plastic is a difficult commodity to recycle,” Fuller said. “At the same time, plastic production is dramatically increasing.”
As much plastic has been produced in the world in the last 13 years as in the previous 50, he said. Additionally, COVID-19 has made it even more difficult to recycle plastic because oil prices have dropped, making it cheaper to manufacture products with virgin oil than using recycled material.
Multiple types of resins are used to produce items such as bottles, clam shells and flexible pouches, and some packaging contains more than one type. The waste has to be sorted piece by piece so it can be sold to manufacturers who require particular resin types, which are indicated by recycling classification numbers on the bottom of many plastic items.
“These commodities are then washed, ground up, melted and turned into plastic pellets,” Fuller said. “These pellets are then sold to manufacturers that make new plastic products.”

Entek on the forefront of the back end
Those plastic pellets are produced using a twin screw extruder, a machine used for the plastic extrusion process when two or more ingredients are mixed or compounded. Entek Manufacturing is the only U.S.-owned manufacturer of twin screw extruders. The opportunity to produce the machines serendipitously fell into the company’s lap and put it in a strategic position when China implemented the ban.
Entek originally formed, in 1984, to manufacture its proprietary lead acid battery sheets in order to fulfill a contract with General Motors. To produce those sheets, the company used twin screw extruders shipped from Germany.

LINDA CAMPBELL explains how the twin screws mix and feed “ingredients” through the extruder and produce an end product, usually plastic pellets.

The extruders work by essentially heating and blending resins together with dual mixing screws and forming a sheet, said Linda Campbell, vice president of sales at Entek Manufacturing.
After only a couple weeks, however, the twin screws would wear out from the abrasive silica, and Germany wouldn’t be able to replace the expensive parts for six months, she said. That put Entek at risk of losing its contract with GM.
So Entek staff had to think outside the box, and solved the problem by building their own replacement parts, Campbell said.
“So here we are, keeping these German extruders running so we can fulfill this contract with General Motors,” she said. “Then – what happened in the plastics industry, at least – word got out that there was a small company in Lebanon, Oregon, making replacement parts for twin screw extruders.”
Entek began getting calls from people who said they couldn’t get barrels and screws from Germany, and they needed help, she said. Eventually Entek realized there was a side business opportunity here.
“We said, ‘We’re all in. We’re not only going to make wear parts for these German extruders, we’re going to actually make the whole extruder.’”
Entek’s first twin screw extruder was introduced in 1998, and today it has installations worldwide.
In the first year of China’s ban on plastic waste, Entek Manufacturing reached 200 percent of its goal, Campbell said.
“I can’t put words in recyclers’ mouths, but I think there’s always been a concern that we needed to do something more with the plastic we were recycling, and not just ship it off-shore,” she said. “We always knew that as Americans, but the ban just expedited the need to figure out how to add value to this plastic.”
Historically, single screw extruders were used to make plastic pellets that, it was hoped, someone would find a use for, Campbell said. But after China’s ban, Americans were met with the urgency to figure out how to better recycle our plastic and make it more useful.

BEFORE AND AFTER samples of mixed ingredients are held by Linda Campbell. Wood flour, left, and virgin polymer pellets, right, are compounded through an extruder to create a wood-plastic composite, above.

“That’s when they started looking away from the single screw – just melting polymer – and into a twin screw, being able to add multiple ingredients,” she said. “We started seeing a real increase in our business based off of that.”
Twin screw extruders can be used for food applications (for example, Cheetos are made on twin screw extruders); to produce such medical applications as medication and IV tubing; and general master batch compounding, to produce pellets that are used to make plastic products.
About 90 percent of the extruders Entek sells are utilized for producing plastic pellets. Campbell used the example of a car’s dashboard to explain how it works.
Car dashes are very highly engineered, she said. They require color consistency, the ability to withstand heat and cold, and the ability to take an impact without injuring people.

WOOD-PLASTIC composite decking can be manufactured by extruders made by Entek. Photo courtesy of Entek

“Little pellets are made on a twin screw extruder, and the car dashboard is then formed using those pellets with all that engineering and color and protectant and so forth,” she said. “The extruder makes the polymer, or ingredients, that makes the dash of the car.”
However, some products can be direct-extruded, meaning the product itself is made on the extruder, such as Entek’s battery sheets, or wood-plastic composite decking.
To make the decking, for example, manufacturers introduce all the materials that need to melt at the beginning of the process. The extruder moves the material down the lane while heating and mixing.
After it is well-blended, wood fibers will be introduced “downstream” and combed into the molten polymer at a cooler temperature, Campbell said. At the end of the line exits a two-by-four deck ready for retail.

From plastic to power
Entec isn’t alone, locally, in seeking to cash in on the need for recycling answers.
Local engineer Larry Shuttlesworth and business partner Steve Henderson, of Pacific Recovery Recycling Solutions, are also focusing on eliminating plastic waste by converting it to energy, and they plan to start in Lebanon.
The pair have been working with the City of Lebanon and other entities for more than a year to get PACRRS up and running, but COVID has slowed their progress.
The zero-emissions system takes any type of plastic and converts it to fuel, electricity, carbon dioxide and hydrogen – commodities which can be sold, Shuttlesworth said.
“Our main focus and goal is to eliminate all plastics that can’t be recycled anywhere else,” he said. “In other words, anything that’s not recyclable, we take and we eliminate.”
That includes trash such as plastic forks, straws, Styrofoam, bubble wrap, toys, tires, plastic medical waste and car dashboards.
“The only thing we don’t take is anything radioactive, but we can burn hazardous waste and get rid of that as well.”
Since 1986, Shuttlesworth has wanted to solve the plastics problem, before it was even considered a real problem.
“I started a plastic recycling company to recycle plastic PET and HDPE, but it went nowhere,” he said. “Back in those days, it was impossible, really, to get anything started like that. I didn’t get a lot of support.”
Henderson added they envision using PACCRS as a resource for promoting the education of students and the community about the problem of plastic waste on the planet and the practice of “good energy.”
“We all need to have the knowledge first as to why this needs to be done, and then take that information and create a positive that benefits us all,” Henderson said. “We all need to understand the impact, and we can educate to make that happen.”
With a background in industrial engineering, Shuttlesworth spent years thinking about the plastics solution. His new venture will eliminate plastic altogether, as opposed to recycling it, he said.
“As time went on, I saw the plastics dilemma getting worse and worse worldwide, and I was thinking, ‘Somebody has to do something.’”

PARTNERS Steve Henderson and Larry Shuttlesworth are working to develop a system to convert plastic waste to energy. Photo courtesy of Steve Henderson

While he and his partners considered building an incinerator for plastic, they met someone who had the answer Shuttlesworth had been looking for: the incineration of plastics with a zero-emissions rate and approval by the California Energy Commission, he said.
While there are many solutions across the globe, Shuttlesworth believes the technology he has is a completely new model.
Originally created for a third party, the closed-loop system PACRRS would use will be the very first commercial unit for strictly plastics, he said, and they have Santiam Carbon Solutions ready to set up shop with them as a provider of algae chambers to capture carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen.
Essentially, plastics will be burned with proprietary material and turned into a gas that can then be cleaned and converted to energy. One waste-to-energy plant would produce enough energy equivalent to power about 9,000 homes.
PACCRS will be able to sustain itself by this energy alone.
“Everything is done within the system itself,” Shuttlesworth said.
The only non-essential product to come out of it is slag, the residual leftovers of what’s been burned. He said it takes a while to produce much of it, though, and the slag can be ground up and mixed with concrete and pavement.
PACCRS can source its plastic waste from anywhere, from auto wrecking yards to hospitals, schools and sanitation companies, and there’s plenty to go around, he said.
“There won’t be a shortage for a long time,” he said. “Mankind is gonna continue to package with plastics, and cars are still going to be made out of plastic, and toys are still gonna be plastic. It’s not going to go away.”

MIXED PLASTIC WASTE is thrown in a general recycle bin. PACCRS claims its system can turn any plastic and Styrofoam into energy commodities.

Shuttlesworth anticipates receiving rail cars full of plastic.
“Starting out, we’ll run about 50 metric tons a day, and then eventually we’ll be doing 100 to 500-plus metric tons every day,” he said.
Among the commodities PACCRS would produce is hydrogen gas, which is a “very marketable item,” he said.
For instance, Japan right now is building 40 hydrogen filling stations because it’s going to convert all of its vehicles to hydrogen gas by 2024, he said.
“This is not the only plant we want to build,” Shuttlesworth said. “It will start in Lebanon, and then, with time, scale up and then build more elsewhere.”