Nextlife Frees Plastics From an Eternity in the Landfill0

Rachel Nuwer | Mon Jun 4 2012

Medicine bottles, sushi trays and yogurt tubs serve different purposes but share the same fate: a near eternity in landfills. That’s because many cities won’t accept the plastic products for recycling.

But Nextlife, a recent arrival on the recycling scene, is breathing new purpose into the formerly discarded materials, one packing peanut at a time. Nextlife aims to displace virgin resins from their monopoly on the plastic market by creating 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic resins.

“The biggest knock on plastics is that they never break down,” says Ron Whaley, Nextlife’s CEO. “But that’s also plastic’s biggest advantage: if they’re recycled responsibly, they can be used time and time again.”

The biggest knock on plastics is that they never break down. But that’s also their biggest advantage.

Plastic resins form the backbone of every soda bottle, ink cartridge and Tupperware container on the planet. Traditionally, resins are made by heating hydrocarbons to break them down into their molecular components, then stringing those compounds together to create chains of polymers that form the basis of every plastic product imaginable. But fewer than half of all plastic resin products ever see the inside of a recycling plant. The rest wind up in plastic resin-based garbage bags to be transported to the dumpster, only driving the need for producing more resins to make new plastics.

Nextlife invented the proprietary technology to take historically one-use-only polypropylenes and polystyrenes and return them into their component parts.

To do this, their plastics are mechanically sorted at their Kentucky recycling plant, and then washed to remove any contaminants. Once clean, the plastics are heated and turned back into pellets that are virtually identical to those provided by virgin resin companies. The razor maker Schick is a Nextlife patron, as is Havi Global Solution, a supplier of food service customers like McDonalds and Coca Cola.

The Florida-based company works with retailers, schools and communities to develop recycling programs, and pays providers for their clothing hangers, bags and other plastics. “Not only is recycling the right thing to do, but it pays to do the right thing,” Whaley points out.

Plastic recycling is just coming of age now.

In addition to their obvious perks as recycled goods, Nextlife claims that its resin also produces a 70 percent smaller carbon footprint compared with virgin resins. Nextlife’s recycling center is designed to create 100 million pounds of resin per year, which saves about 550,000 barrels of oil compared to the same amount of resin produced from scratch. “That’s something a consumer can understand and care about,” Whaley says.

Nextlife’s post consumer recycled plastic recently received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada to be used for food products like containers and cutlery, making the company the first in the recycling industry to gain such approval. “Our business is based on science, and everything we do is certified by third party evaluation so customers can count on what we’re telling them,” Whaley says.

Whaley says he receives shipments of plastics from households all over the country on a regular basis. If all goes well, within 3 to 5 years he hopes the whole plastics recycling industry will have grown all over the country so conscientious consumers will no longer have to deal with the hassle of getting their plastics to Nextlife.

For years, the global recycling industry has stagnated, focusing on collection rather than innovation. “I think plastic recycling is just coming of age now,” Whaley says. “People are finally realizing that being sustainable can also be good business.”

Top image: Courtesy Flickr user MC =)