From Saturday's Star Tribune on Aveda's very successful plastic bottle cap recycling program.
Local company’s twist on recycling
While cities say, “No, you can’t” recycle plastic caps, people nationwide say, “Yes, we can,” and Aveda Corp. leads the way.
By Karen Youso firstname.lastname@example.org
Every day, thousands of plastic bottle caps arrive at Aveda Corp. in Blaine.
The caps of many colors come in sacks, boxes and bags. They arrive by mail, auto and hand; from churches, schools, businesses and households. They come from as near as down the road, and as far away as Honolulu. Stacks of discarded packages with return labels from Illinois, New York, North Carolina litter warehouse bins.
Donors get nothing in return for making the trek or paying the postage to Blaine, except the good feeling that comes with recycling, said Aveda spokesman Evan Miller.
The bottle caps — from water, soft drinks, shampoo, it doesn’t matter — are turned into new caps for Aveda’s hair-care products. And the process can be repeated indefinitely, Miller said. They won’t be thrown away. Indeed, just last week, about 30,000 pounds of caps left Aveda to be recycled.
By most measures, Aveda’s four-year-old cap recycling program is a ringing success. But while Aveda is saying, “Yes, we’ll take your caps for recycling,” many municipalities, such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, are saying, “No. Caps can’t be recycled; throw them away.”
Clearly, people want to recycle caps, and they will go to some lengths to do it, so why can’t it be easier? Why can’t it be a part of curbside plastic pickup?
It’s not feasible, industry and civic recycling experts say.
“The recycling facilities were designed on the bottle,” explained Dianna Kennedy with Eureka Recycling, St. Paul’s recycling hauler. Bottles are made of No. 1 plastic resin, but the caps use No. 5. They are different kinds of plastic, with different melting points.
End markets like clean material — all the same kind of plastic. To be successfully recycled, caps would have to be separated by the consumer, or separated in the sorting and kept separate through shipping and processing.
Even if that were accomplished, finding a market for them is difficult. Recycled bottles are used by manufacturers to make lots of items: insulation, clothing, carpet, even new bottles. But they can’t use caps. That plastic doesn’t work for them, said Susan Young, Minneapolis’ director of solid waste and recycling. Caps have to be sent to a different manufacturer, and “we don’t have a steady, reliable market for plastic caps,” she said.
Aveda has created its own end market for recycling. Minneapolis considered creating a special curbside pickup program to work with Aveda, but the numbers were massive. Aveda would be overwhelmed, and “we do not want to become a recycler,” Miller said. Aveda is an international cosmetic and hair care company, a division of Estee Lauder Companies.
Some haulers collect bottles with the caps at curbside and recycle their caps. Anita Sellers, a spokeswoman for Waste Management’s Recycle America, a recycling hauler in many Twin Cities suburbs, said that the company recycles caps if they’re attached to the bottle. Bottles with caps are pulled off the sorting line and sent to a variety of processors.
But Young is skeptical. Picking them up and having them actually end up being recycled isn’t the same thing, she said. Caps in a shipment of bottles are considered “residual” or garbage. They’re sorted out by the processor and then thrown away.
As good as it looks, Aveda’s program is far from perfect. The plastic caps collected in Minnesota are trucked to a sorting and grinding operation in Alabama. The resulting shredded plastic is shipped back to Wisconsin to be made into plastic caps that are then sent to Blaine.
It’s closed-loop recycling, the best kind — but it’s a loop that includes lots of shipping, which is not so good. There’s a lot of pollution generated in all the travel.
But the system in place is not the end Aveda is looking for. Beyond keeping plastic caps out of landfills and waterways, the company wants to show municipalities and recycling companies it can be done, and to pressure them to start recycling caps.
Local recyclers respond that the real pressure needs to be on the manufacturers.
“For communities to figure out how to recycle every kind of plastic is nearly impossible and it puts the responsibility, and the expense, on taxpayers,” Kennedy said.
The only real solution, she said, is one that engages manufacturers in designing their products and packaging to fit into community systems, not the other way around.
Karen Youso • 612-673-4407