Ron Sherga got his start in the plastics recycling industry at home. His father was a plastics broker who focused on scrap starting in the 1960s. That next decade, in 1978, Sherga himself was working in the plastics industry from his home, where he says he learned to be “a self-starter.” In 2012, he founded EcoStrate SFS, an Arlington, Texas-based company that turns a broad range of scrap into products such as street signs and flooring.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries honored EcoStrate SFS at its 2017 Convention & Exposition in late April with the association’s Design for Recycling Award.
What are your roots in the plastics recycling industry? I grew up in a house where my dad, Ted Sherga, was a plastics broker who focused on scrap back in the ’60s through the ’90s. My first job in plastics was at [age] 15 in Naperville, Illinois, at a caps and closure injection molder doing various roles, from running machines to loading materials in machines and boxcars with finished goods. After college in 1976, I was offered a job at H. Muehlstein [& Co. Inc.] in the sales department (thanks to my dad). This became the start of understanding various materials ranging from prime materials to low-end scrap and creative compounding to end products. I got to be involved in the creation of one of the first large-scale plastic scrap conversion plants in the Houston area.
Why did you start EcoStrate SFS Inc.? To create a simpler solution and technology platform to more challenging waste streams and create more value-added solutions to achieve a better economical and sustainable business model. Seeing so many complicated recycling and waste efforts and poorly led technologies that ultimately burned or devalued the original materials frustrated me—and still does. I wanted to show an alternative and simpler set of solutions.
Where do you see upcoming opportunities and challenges for plastics recycling? I see the largest sectors of waste—e-waste, textiles and flexible packaging—begging for solutions along the entire life cycle, with recycling positioned to lead in solving materials issues already in the marketplace. We need to play a larger role in design considerations and cost models to the entire economy—an eco-currency. Why aren’t plastics recycling efforts more eligible for offset credits?
Big challenges I see are the politicizing of the entire environmental landscape and the poor accountability for agencies with enormous buying power not fulfilling or creating mandates that would transform a sea change of recycling investments. We still have some lingering perception issues that recycled isn’t as good. If we can’t embrace our own solutions, why should we expect others to do so?
Have equipment manufacturers moved fast enough in developing new technology to support the recycling industry? Of course, with my firm EcoStrate being a technology platform that has created very innovative solutions, part of me says yes. I think a very under-recognized area is the advances made by plastics products manufacturers at recovering their own waste. It has been an area some melt filter and size reduction firms profit from the most.
Sorting and separation advances are good and getting better for more postconsumer streams. Access to blending and mixing systems has also been a huge help for lower cost, clean materials and more forgiving applications. Early efforts were led by creative recyclers adapting other industry equipment from agriculture, food and paper and metal scrap. It’s been fun to watch equipment makers from other industries adapt and see the potential that plastics can offer.
I think more solutions exist but are not economical at today’s scale for dirtier materials and mixed streams.
How have you seen plastics recycling change over the years? Dramatically. I’ve seen it go from “use plastics, save a tree” to “plastic is evil.” I applaud the paper and metals industries for leading the way for plastics. They created technologies and collection models, which have been adopted and improved upon for plastics. Part of this is organic as we’ve seen so much more plastics created and consumed globally. Because of plastic content products, the BTU [British thermal units] content of waste has become the same or better than coal, and waste volumes are factored in like a new plastic reactor. I also think that polymer producers were slow to embrace recycling and saw it more as a threat. A few polymer shortages, waste costs and public demands, combined with the fast-growing global needs for plastics, created a demand that launched many new markets and channels. The paper and metals industries are still plastics leaders, especially when we examine e-waste, plastics and auto waste. Plastics are feeling more pressure from packaging than any other sector. This started with plastic bottles and now has a focus on flexible packaging.
What roles have you held over the years and in what ways have you contributed to the industry? Regional sales, national sales manager, marketing, product development, director of procurement, technical advisor for scanning and size reduction equipment, CEO, founder and inventor.
I’m proud to say that I have made a difference and made a positive impact on those I worked with and crossed paths with. I’ve certainly learned from many and had various teachers and support.
What lessons have you learned about the industry that have helped you throughout the years? It’s a huge family and people very rarely leave it. Create friendships and realize we make a huge difference to the world and the future. I have friends in this industry whose children and grandchildren I am working with. We are a young industry that has grown from one of the oldest industries in the world. We are growing, and this might be the most exciting time in our entire history.
What’s the biggest (professional) mistake you have made? Not taking more business classes early on and not spending some time living overseas.
Who has served as your role model or mentor? My dad, Ted Sherga, who showed me love of work, humor, ethics and relationships. My buying team and the leadership at Infiltrator Water Technologies helped me to better understand business and the importance of relationships, planned risk and forward thinking.
How are industry trade groups doing an effective job in promoting the recycling industry? I think ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries) has a great history, and I’m so glad to see them working with the [Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS)] and others like CARE (Carpet America Recovery Effort). It is also interesting to see the paper and metals groups growing their plastics visibility. The waste people are still lagging behind, in my view, but communities are demanding more, and they appear to be trying to address plastics issues.
It’s also been interesting to see the retailers and food companies showing a much larger presence and involvement in working with plastics recyclers and polymer producers. When you think about it, the list of industry groups coming to the table is growing: auto, energy, medical, aerospace, maritime and tech, to name a few.