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Nebraska company ventures deeper into plastic ‘lumber’ production

Published:Wednesday | August 11, 2021 | 12:05 AM

The CEO of Nebraska’s largest recyclables processing company, Firstar Fiber, had his new patio built with ‘lumber’ derived from hard-to-recycle plastic waste like toothpaste tubes, candy wrappers and plastic foam containers.

Now, Dale Gubbels’ Omaha-based company has partnered with a global non-profit to manufacture and sell the lumber on a mass scale, offering an innovative, potentially profitable method to reduce litter and keep plastics out of waterways, landfills and oceans across the world.

The Omaha World-Herald reports that Firstar Fiber has partnered with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste to add that manufacturing capability to its large processing facility.

The collaboration propels Omaha on to the global recycling stage. The non-profit’s three-year agreement with Firstar is the first partnership the alliance has announced with a company in North America.

A ribbon-cutting last week officially opened a 5,000-square-foot expansion at Firstar to produce the lumber.

The lumber will be made on-site from many items Omahans typically throw in the trash, such as plastic straws, juice boxes, potato chip bags and plastic wrap. Some Omahans are already recycling those items by using Hefty orange energy bags, which can be purchased at local stores.

Omaha residents have been able to toss the orange bags in along with their regular kerbside recycling since 2016, when the city became the nation’s first to introduce the programme on a permanent basis. Firstar sends those recyclables to a cement plant for use as fuel.

The plastic lumber can be used to build lawn chairs, retaining walls and privacy fences, in addition to patios.

Barring any supply chain disruptions, Firstar expects to begin receiving manufacturing equipment in August from a company in Canada that developed the technology. Gubbels said he hopes to be churning out the plastic lumber by early next year or sooner.

The effort, Gubbels said, could keep 20,000 tons of plastics out of the landfill each year. Each ton diverted from the landfill saves Omaha-area communities about US$25 to US$30, Gubbels said.

For years, Firstar has operated as many recycling processors do: accepting materials, sorting them, squeezing the debris into bales and shipping those bales to markets across the country. But Gubbels said he knew that the company could do more.

“It otherwise is going to end up in our streets,” he said of the plastics. “And if it hits the streets, it’s going to end up in waterways. And it’ll end up, eventually, in the ocean. So we’re tied to the world with what we’re doing here.”

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, started in 2019, is investing in infrastructure, research, education and clean-up efforts. Its member companies include some of the biggest corporations in the world, including PepsiCo, ExxonMobil and Shell.

Along with a US$1.35-million, low-interest loan, the alliance is providing Firstar with technical expertise, advice and introduction to other new recycling technologies.

“We are excited to be a catalyst to drive this forward, to share in some of the risks, to share in some of the technology, and to help this grow, more importantly, into something that can be replicated and scaled, not only in the United States, but globally,” said Steve Sikra, an alliance vice-president.

Firstar also received a US$374,000 grant from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

Officials behind the partnership say lumber could be the first of multiple products Firstar makes from plastics, depending on how profitable the project is.

“We can’t do this just because we want to do it and it’s good for the environment,” Gubbels said. “We have to make it sustainable. So we’ll be looking at products that people want to buy.”

Globally, the alliance has more than 30 projects under way. When those come to full fruition, Sikra said, the non-profit expects to remove from the environment 875,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste per year.

Sikra said it’s rare for these plastics to be manufactured into a new product.

“To our knowledge, this ... is indeed setting an example for others,” he said.

Bellevue City Councilman Don Preister, an avid environmentalist, praised the partnership and manufacturing plan. But Preister said the success of the programme rests with the public. Only a small percentage of single-use plastics make their way to a recycling facility, he said, urging people to use the orange bag programme.

“We’re turning waste into a commodity, into a product — that’s wonderful,” he said, “but unless we use it, it doesn’t do much good.”

Gubbels said he knows that there’s a community desire to recycle more based on the number of items people put into kerbside recycling bins that shouldn’t be there.

“People want to recycle, and they’re desperate to try to save resources,” he said. “Unfortunately, it can’t be done unless we all work together.”