recycling

CEC Supports Pittsburgh-Based Startup That Recycles Plastic into “A Better Backpack”

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Thread International makes polyester fabric out of recycled plastic bottles sourced from Haiti, Honduras, and now Taiwan. CEC was inspired by Thread’s cause and commitment to sustainability, so we pledged to purchase 100 backpacks during its recent Kickstarter campaign that ran from August through September 2018 with a goal of $45,000. To put it mildly, the campaign was wildly successful; it reached $571,353.

Our Green Team recently took a field trip to Thread’s Pittsburgh location in the Homewood neighborhood for a tour of the facility and to learn about the vision for the company and how they made it happen. We met some of the staff, including Kelsey Halling, director of sales; Christina Gappy, chief of staff; and Ian Rosenberger, founder and CEO.

CEC Green Team at Thread International Pittsburgh location
Halling with members of CEC’s Green Team
Thread International Pittsburgh facility in Homehood
Inside Thread’s Pittsburgh, PA location

The idea for Thread began in 2010 when Ian traveled to Haiti for the first time. There, he learned that many people were looking for work and that plastic trash can be transformed into fabric. He and four friends reached out to some global brands, trying to convince them to build factories in Haiti. Each company declined, so the five-person team created Thread and decided to make fabric out of waste on their own. The group learned the process and worked without pay for almost three years while making more than 300 trips to and from Haiti. In the years since, Thread has produced its fabric for collaborations with Aerie, Reebok, Timberland, and Marmot, and has saved over 41 million plastic bottles from landfills in the ocean. They now source material from Honduras and Taiwan as well.

CEC VP and Green Team member Kris Macoskey learns about the zippers
A Thread worker shows CEC Vice President and Green Team member Kris Macoskey how they attach the zippers.
A Thread worker shows the sewing machine process to the Green Team
A Thread worker shows the sewing machine process to the Green Team.

Haiti, Honduras, and Taiwan have no formal recycling collection, so Thread employs local workers who recover plastic bottles from landfills and streets. After the bottles are sourced in these countries, various supply chain stops are in the US, Mexico, Guatemala, and China, with a total supply chain involving approximately 1,400 people. Thread’s commitment to sustainability not only helps the planet by keeping waste off of the land and out of the ocean, but also creates jobs and alleviates poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries. Thread is a certified B corporation, which means it’s legally required to consider the impact of its decisions on its workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.

If you take a look at the bottom of a water bottle, it has a number corresponding to what type of plastic it is. Thread only uses plastic #1. There is virtually no difference between virgin plastic and recycled plastic (which is then termed recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or rPET) in terms of material usability. After plastic bottles are collected, labels and caps are removed. The bottles then go through a “stop and grind” process, at which point the plastic comes out as “flake.” It then gets melted down and extruded through a machine that looks like a shower head. It is then drawn into yarn, which is sent to a facility—which facility? It depends on what it will be used for—and then dyed.

Thread International plastic flake
Plastic flake
Thread International plastic thread
Plastic thread
Thread International different forms of plastic
Recycled plastic in all of the forms Thread uses for various collaborations (from left: fiber fill, flake, pellet, thread, and yarn in the back)

Other companies create sustainability-friendly products in a similar manner, but the difference with Thread is that it has a transparent supply chain. Everything can be traced down to the bottom level, including collection networks and working conditions. Thread also supports a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action as it relates to the problem of undignified and child labor in global supply chains.

A Better Backpack
Each backpack saves 619 gallons of water, avoids 0.4 pounds of pesticide, and consists of 25 recycled bottles in the form of water-repellent waxed canvas. In regard to the design process, Thread spent a year sampling various backpacks and improving on numerous prototypes. The approved design has straps similar to the ergonomic straps of a hiking pack and an additional luggage strap to slip your bag onto a rolling suitcase; handles on two sides; a main compartment; a laptop section; and a section for your water bottle, wine bottle, or umbrella. The backpacks come in two sizes and three colors.

A small cord pouch, also new, was available via the Kickstarter campaign as an additional incentive, depending on pledge level.

Thread International A Better Backpack in brown and black
The brown and black versions of the backpack
CEC Green Team member Kristen Robertson opens A Better Backpack
Green Team member Kristen Robertson (center) checks out the gray backpack while Halling (right) tells us about the process; Green Team member Adam Fiscus (left) looks on.

 

The specialized machinery necessary to construct the backpacks are located in China, so that’s where the backpacks are being constructed (it takes roughly two hours to assemble a backpack in China, compared to approximately 30 hours in the US). The cord pouches are cut and sewn at Thread’s Pittsburgh office. The finished backpacks will be sent to the Pittsburgh office and then shipped to Kickstarter backers in February 2019.

Thread has plans to expand into other countries in the future and to continue impacting the world in a positive way. We’re excited to see where it’s heading.

EPA Tightens Restrictions on Recycling

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Under the final rule defining solid waste, published on January 13, 2015, EPA eliminated provisions in the 2008 Bush administration rule that provided flexibility allowing the return of hazardous secondary materials to the economic mainstream.  In settling a lawsuit with the Sierra Club, EPA agreed to review the 2008 changes.  As a consequence of this review, EPA found human health risk increased disproportionately for minority and low income communities.

Key changes include the following:

To verify that a recycling operation is legitimate and not a sham, the recycler must:

  • Prove that the hazardous secondary material makes a useful contribution;
  • Demonstrate that the recycling process produces a valuable final or intermediate product;
  • Manage the hazardous secondary materials as a valuable commodity; and
  • Confirm that the product is comparable to analogous products of virgin materials.

In the 2008 DSW Rule, the first two factors were mandatory, while the third and fourth were to be considered.

  1. The 2008 generator-control conditional exclusion now requires:
  • Documentation of legitimate recycling;
  • Proper containment;
  • Record keeping for generator-controlled recycling options; and
  • Emergency preparedness and response provisions.
  1. Transfer-based exclusions have been eliminated. These exclusions required that materials be managed by RCRA permitted facilities or “verified recyclers” who obtain a State-issued variance from RCRA.  Under the new rules, a facility applying for  a variance as a verified recycler must:
  • Demonstrate that legitimate recycling is being conducted;
  • Maintain necessary equipment and personnel;
  • Implement an emergency preparedness and response plan;
  • Provide financial assurances;
  • Assess risk to the local community from potential releases and cumulative risk from area-wide facilities; and
  • Provide public notice and opportunity to comment.
  1. Variances and non-waste determinations must be renewed each ten years and biennial re-notifications must be submitted.
  1. An exclusion was added for high-value solvent remanufacturing that requires notification, a remanufacturing plan, tracking, containment, and no speculative accumulation.

The effective date for the rule is 180 days after publication in the Federal Register (January 13, 2015).  For States with delegated RCRA authority, the rule will not be effective unless and until adopted by the State.  The more stringent portions of the rule (e.g., the new legitimacy criteria) will have to be adopted within one to three years, but the less stringent portions of the rule (such as the new remanufacturing exclusion) are optional.

As of the effective date, facilities operating under the 2008 generator-controlled exclusion must comply with the revised standards, and facilities operating under the 2008 transfer-based exclusion must meet the terms of the verified recycler exclusion.

According to comments on the docket from the regulated community, restrictions will materially curtail recycling. Associations representing affected industries have expressed their concern:

The rule “provides insufficient incentives to promote recycling of secondary materials and maintains many onerous and unnecessary requirements; verified recycler requirements could prove too onerous to encourage additional facilities to recycle secondary materials.”  (www.IPC.org)

The rule will “impose additional burdens when there is no evidence that the existing recycling regulations are creating environmental problems” and “will discourage recycling, increase the land filling and incineration of otherwise useful secondary materials, and increase the use of natural resources and energy.” (www.NAM.org)

The Sierra Club had a different view:

“The EPA conducted and included findings from a thorough environmental justice analysis that found loopholes in the DSW rule significantly and disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of color.  While the rule closes some loopholes to control hazardous waste recycling, other sizable gaps remain, including the lack of any enforceable standard for the containment of hazardous waste and the lack of standards for facilities that treat and dispose of similar waste — the source of much of the contamination that has previously been traced to DSW rule loopholes.”

Potential further legal or Congressional action is unclear at this time.

Additional information on the Definition of Solid Waste EPA final rule is provided here

If you have any questions about the proposed Definition of Solid Waste rule and whether your facility may be impacted by these regulations, please contact Beth Schwartz at bschwartz@cecinc.com, or Donna Oswald at doswald@cecinc.com or call them at 888-963-6026.