Keep America Beautiful is promoting the Hefty EnergyBag program, touted as a groundbreaking effort to collect previously non-recycled plastics at curbside and convert it into valuable energy resources.

Aug. 17, 2017

A local air quality watchdog group recently decried a Keep America Beautiful sponsored program to dispose of hard-to-recycle plastic by incineration and other lesser known alternatives to traditional recycling.

It’s called the Hefty EnergyBag program. Keep America Beautiful and The Dow Chemical Company have partnered to offer two $50,000 grants for communities to start it in their area.

Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk, takes issue with the Connecticut-based litter awareness group teaming up with the multi-national plastics manufacturer to endorse, what he sees as a risky recycling practice.

“The same group that gave you Oscar ‘Iron Eyes’ Cody crying over litter is now prepared to make your own eyes water and sting from the air pollution it wants to encourage by burning municipal solid waste, especially ‘hard-to-recycle’ plastics,” said Schermbeck in a recent post.

Hefty Energy Bag ProgramThe Hefty program, which also has the support of Reynolds Consumer Products, Recyclebank, First Star Recycling, ConAgra Foods and Systech Environmental Corporation, is touted as a groundbreaking effort to collect previously non-recycled plastics at curbside and convert them into “valuable energy resources.”

Plastics like candy wrappers and potato chip bags, would be collected in bright orange Hefty EnergyBags, which themselves are not currently mechanically recyclable. These would be sorted and baled at a materials recovery facility and shipped to local energy recovery companies for conversion at pyrolysis, gasification and cement kiln facilities.

Schermbeck got wind of the program in July. He was steamed when he read about their plan to burn plastic in cement plants.

Not surprising. The grassroots air quality group was formed in 1994 to fight pollution emitting from three cement plants in Midlothian, south of Dallas. The epic local battle was launched after the plants switched from burning traditional fuels to burning hazardous waste in the 1980s. The environmental crusade continues today.

Holcim cement plantsTXI is one of three cement plants operating in Midlothian. Photo by AP/Tony Gutierrez.

“Even after many cement plants have stopped burning hazardous wastes, they continue to burn ‘industrial wastes; like used oil, tires and shredded car interiors. When burned in kilns, these waste often produce exactly the same toxic air pollution as hazardous wastes,” said Schermbeck in a blog post.

However, Dow insists the use of plastics and other materials as fuel in cement kilns does not pose an increased risk to human health and the environment. 

“All cement plant emissions in the U.S. are regulated under the Clean Air Act in addition to any local air quality requirements that protect human health and the environment,” says Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability Director, Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics. “There is no reason to continue to send plastics items that cannot be mechanically recycled to the landfill, when we can recover them to be used as energy resources.”

Schermbeck says even after years of fighting the plants through political channels, public awareness campaigns, actions and lawsuits, the regulations are still lacking.

“These companies put magical powers in the ability of cement kilns and other incinerators to make all the toxic trash they want to put in them go ‘poof.’ This is as un-scientific an expectation now as it was in the 1980s when many of us first heard it. They want you to just take their word that these facilities can make poisons disappear in a way not described in the scientific literature.”

Wooster said all energy recovery facilities that are approved to receive Hefty EnergyBag program materials must undergo a strict vetting process, which includes an assessment of environmental compliance and permits, air pollution controls, facility operational practices and more.

Mike Rosen, a spokesperson for Keep America Beautiful, applauded the work of Downwinders at Risk and said KAB shares its "vision and values." 

"One of the reasons we're comfortable getting involved is that there is a vetting process and companies will be following EPA guidelines," he said. "I believe this program encourages the behavior of recycling."

So far there is only one Hefty EnergyBag program operating – a program in the Omaha, Neb. metro area. A three-month pilot program was also conducted in Citrus Heights, Calif. in 2014  Dow says there are no plans to implement one in North Texas. Spokespersons for local affiliates of KAB, Brenda Finch of Keep Dallas Beautiful and Debbie Branch of Keep Fort Worth Beautiful, had not heard of the program and said their focus remains on community litter campaigns and beautification projects.

But Schermbeck wants to get ahead of the Hefty EnergyBag before it's floated in North Texas. He fears communities could be hoodwinked if they hear about it from a benign messenger such as Keep America Beautiful, whose board, he points out, includes two executives from the Dow Chemical Company.

“The main advantage touted here seems to be reducing the amount of plastics in landfills. That's an admirable goal, but it shouldn't come at the price of breathing carcinogens. If you create a new, worse problem trying to solve an existing one, you're not advancing sustainability.”

The simplest, least-toxic remedy is to produce plastics that are biodegradable and/or recyclable, he said.

“This project is a transparent attempt by Big Plastic to make it seem more green by trying to adopt the laughable fig leaf of  ‘energy recovery.’ Unfortunately for them, that's a pretty disreputable and toxic fig leaf with a terrible 30-year history.” 

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