Danny Schrager has specialized in plastics recycling and sustainability for 30 years. In that time, he’s helped recycle more than 800 million pounds of postconsumer and postindustrial plastics.
He started GearedforGreen in 2012. The New York-based company provides a wide range of consulting services to help companies achieve their sustainability goals. Notably, GearedforGreen maintains a contracted network of recycled resin suppliers that collectively produce more than 1 billion pounds of recycled resin per year, which it connects with clients that need recycled resin.
The company also helps its clients recycle plastic, increase use of recycled resin in their products and make and use plastic packaging more sustainably. Additionally, GearedforGreen assists its clients with implementing education and outreach programs, such as communicating about recycling initiatives, using ocean plastic and participating in beach cleanups.
Schrager says his passion is helping connect the plastics supply chain in circular economies “to make plastics sustainable together.”
Schrager shares his thoughts on the industry in the Q&A that follows.
How has plastics recycling changed over the years? A few changes come to mind; one would be technology development. That includes chemical plastics recycling; that’s a very big development that’s going to make significant changes in the plastics recycling landscape.
And, certainly advancements in technology in terms of cleaning, washing, filtration and separation, they’re helping us and many others to improve the quality of the recycled plastic materials, so they could be much more widely used as raw materials in everyday manufacturing. Manufacturers are used to using virgin resin, and recycled [material] quality isn’t quite as good as virgin resin. So, the better our technologies are to make clean recycled pellets, the more widely used they’ll be.
You can see that the industry is really getting behind [the] circular economy in a big way. There [are] more and more connected, collaborative, transparent supply chains starting up. Once you start to create these circular economies and supply chains, you start to use resources more effectively. You start to design products more sustainably, with end-of-use sustainability in mind. Those levels of innovation are having profound changes.
I also see something externally in the market that’s happening today that’s having a big [impact]. It’s this groundswell of consumer awareness. It is really helping drive plastics recycling, especially in areas surrounding single-use plastic packaging and ocean plastic waste, which are huge problems. What’s happening today is consumers are making purchasing decisions and also brand-loyalty decisions at least in part with sustainability and social value in mind. You start to see manufacturers, brands, retailers and distribution really listening. And they’re making investments, with tangible steps toward creating plastics sustainability solutions. So that’s a big change.
This global issue with China shutting its doors to plastic scrap and now India following suit, it’s causing short-term challenges to the plastics recycling industry. We’ve seen quite a few companies that relied on exporting their plastic waste now having to resort to landfilling.
But I think this may be a silver lining because longer term, this may be the impetus for greater investment here in the USA. And you can see more innovation and investment of recycling facilities and technologies to handle plastic waste here in the United States and our own infrastructure.
What lessons have you learned about the industry? When it comes to plastic scrap, producing recycled resins and dealing with contamination, one lesson I’ve learned, and I think most everyone in the plastics processing world has learned over time, is blend, blend and blend again.
Plastic scrap, especially postconsumer scrap, generally arrives very inconsistently, on a bale-by-bale basis, or even on a truckload-by-truckload basis. But when you look at it as a whole, it’s actually fairly consistent. So, the challenge for converters who take plastic scrap and actually create new recycled materials is how do you make that material consistent? Because consistency is critical to those that are using your recycled raw materials to make new products. Blending, both preblending and postblending, can turn inconsistent plastic waste material into consistent, sustainable raw material. In the industry, we call this phenomenon being “inconsistently consistent.”
Where do you see opportunities for plastics recycling? What about challenges? Plastics are one of those things that has incredible benefits to mankind, like preserving food longer. But, obviously, plastics are also wreaking havoc in terms of the environment, and practically everyone has been made aware of this plastic pollution and single-use plastics and ocean plastic waste. There are literally billions of pounds of brand-new plastic materials being produced every year, and yet, 85 to 90 percent of all that winds up in a landfill, or worse.
I think there are incredible upcoming opportunities for all of us in the plastics recycling and sustainability sphere. Technology is probably No. 1, including, as I mentioned earlier, chemical recycling. We work with supply-chain partners that utilize incredible chemical technologies, including chemical friction, that allow us to remove and decoat all types of surface coatings from plastic—to remove exterior laminate and paints and metallics and the print and inks—and to do all of that without negatively impacting the physical properties of the polymers themselves.
These types of technologies are helping drive millions and millions of pounds of plastic recycling that were in the past too challenging to recycle.
On the flip side, the challenge with all these new technologies is making sure that they’re cost-effective, especially compared to prime virgin plastic. Because, at the end of the day, if the technology cost is too high, the end result won’t be cost-effective, and that technology won’t be deployed in any wide basis.
What is a more convincing argument about sustainability to the business world: environmental altruism or economic self-interest? In the past, I easily would have said economics for certain, and specifically [price per pound] economics. Generally speaking, sustainability has to be economically viable for it to be successful long term. That’s true for industry, and it’s also true for consumer purchasing.
But I think, today, there’s a real argument that says social brand value may ultimately have even greater importance than in the years past. Social value can really move the needle in terms of brand loyalty, which can have a direct impact on a brand’s top-line revenue and even their ability to gain shelf space. If implemented right, social value in many ways can surpass traditional price-per-pound value.
So, with consumers now making purchasing decisions in part based on a brand’s social purpose, we’re seeing social value having tremendous importance today. And that’s why you start to see leading retailers, including Walmart and Target and others, setting these very lofty plastics sustainability goals for their whole supply chain and leading brands—Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé and others—investing so heavily in sustainability and the circular economy. I think it’s because in today’s social media world, information, whether it’s good news or bad news for brand owners, spreads in minutes and can make or break a brand.
So, you’re starting to see a trend in terms of plastics sustainability where today social brand value and environmental altruism may wind up surpassing traditional price-per-pound economics that everyone focused on yesterday.
How important to you are concerns about “greenwashing” — environmental claims that don’t hold up? It’s huge. One of the important aspects about creating a circular economy is that there’s full collaboration and transparency throughout the entire supply chain. It enables you to track as a chain of custody plastic waste from source of origin throughout the recycling supply chain, turned into new raw materials, back into new products and [then] certify those, measuring carbon footprint, etc. Ensuring that you are not going to be, whether on purpose or by mistake, participating in any kind of greenwashing, which is essentially touting your sustainability, but maybe in reality they’re not as sustainable as consumers thought they might be.
What misperceptions about plastics recycling do you wish you could debunk? I would say that plastic bags—like grocery or retail bags, films or wraps—aren’t being recycled and aren’t recyclable here in North America. Because that is, in fact, completely not correct. There are increasing amounts of plastic films and bags being recycled in North America. There’s a lot of talk about plastic bag bans. We’re very active in this space. But, in reality, plastic films and bags and wraps are very much recyclable, and not just into plastic decking and plastic lumber. With today’s advances in new recycling, filtration and cleaning technologies, plastic films, bags and wraps are being converted back into clean recycled plastic resins and made back into brand-new plastic film products over and over again.
There’s a growing infrastructure here in North America to recycle millions of pounds of these plastics.
The good news is, while the consumer packaged goods industry and retailers generate lots of plastic waste—grocery bags, retail bags, stretch wrap, shrink wrap, bubble wrap and all kinds of plastic wraps—these same companies also consume and buy themselves as well as sell significant amounts of brand-new plastic trash bags, can liners, commerce shipping bags, that are all made of the same thermoplastic materials. It’s an ideal application for the circular economy!
So, the key really is, and the challenge really is, we must treat plastic waste not as waste but instead as a renewable resource that we can turn into brand-new products to increase plastic film and bag recycling on our side, at least. We focus on technologies and creating formulations that foster circular-economy collaboration.
What advice can you offer to younger people entering the industry? My advice would be to get passionate. Young folks shouldn’t jump into the plastics recycling and sustainability industries simply for their own economic reasons, although, obviously that’s important. I think, beyond that, youth should get involved because they’re passionate about plastics, they’re passionate about our planet and environment and about creating positive change in the world.
Who has served as your role model? That would definitely be my dad. My dad, before me, was a plastics pioneer himself. He taught me, more really by his actions than his words, about perseverance and hard work and overcoming obstacles in life and in business and, really importantly, about persistence and dedication: dedication to the customer, dedication to your trading partners, to the value of long-term partnerships. [He] definitely taught me a lot about thinking differently and being innovative and creating solutions where others said solutions weren’t possible. We always believe we can create solutions.
He was involved with plastics recycling for many, many years. He’s 80 years old today and happily retired.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? I’ve had a lot of great experiences. But if I had to single out one specific accomplishment that I’m proud of, it probably would be a plastics sustainability solution that I developed and implemented for Walmart a number of years ago.
Walmart came to us to help find a solution to their disposable plastic shipping hangers. At that point, Walmart was disposing these plastic hangers into landfills—around a billion plastic shipping hangers annually—which came in from apparel vendors from all over the world.
Disposable plastic shipping hangers were very challenging to recycle because they were made from a number of different polymers that were all mixed together, and they couldn’t be melted together. Plastic hangers were made from polypropylene and polystyrene and K-resin (styrene butadiene copolymer), which aren’t compatible in a recycling process because they melt at different temperatures. But, also, plastic containers are heavily contaminated with all types of nonplastic waste—paper, fabric, foam, tissue paper, stickers, adhesives, metals, rods, clips and hooks, all that stuff—and get all entangled together.
We designed, built and operated the plastics recycling facilities ourselves to help solve this problem for Walmart. We built a state-of-the-art plastics recycling operation. We installed hydrocyclone resin separation systems to separate polymers by specific gravity at very high speeds and with great accuracy. We installed metal- and air-classification separation systems, color sortation, all in a highly automated process with very little manual labor required.
To authenticate our work, we also measured our own carbon footprint through the entire operation, including from sourcing the material to our facilities. We verified that our carbon footprint was an 80 percent carbon footprint reduction versus comparable prime resin.
We also obtained FDA (Food and Drug Administration) compliance, as well, for the recycled plastic resins we produced from consumer-used plastic hangers. To go full circle, ultimately, we worked collaboratively with the supply chains and helped close the loop for Walmart, with product back in their stores in the lawn and garden department and other departments made entirely from Walmart plastic hangers. It was a great experience for me personally, as well. I’d probably say that’s my most enjoyable or fulfilling professional accomplishment related to plastics and sustainability.