Four metro counties join Cobb to take on hard-to-recycle plastics

A new voluntary recycling program being taken up in Fulton, Gwinnett, Forsyth and Cherokee counties will take hard to recycle plastics and turn them into resins to be re-used to make plastic. (Courtesy of Cobb County)
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A new voluntary recycling program being taken up in Fulton, Gwinnett, Forsyth and Cherokee counties will take hard to recycle plastics and turn them into resins to be re-used to make plastic. (Courtesy of Cobb County)

Program turns plastic into liquid and back into plastic

Four counties are joining Cobb County in a program that diverts hard-to-recycle plastics from local landfills and delivers them to a metro Atlanta processor that turns the plastics into a liquid that will be made into new plastic.

Fulton, Gwinnett, Cherokee and Forsyth counties will participate in the Hefty Energy Bag program. It requires residents to buy special orange garbage bags from retailers and fill the bags with plastics that typically end up in landfills. Such plastics include plastic films, grocery and snack bags, foam to-go food containers and plastic dinnerware and straws.

The orange bags are sent by recyclers to Nexus Fuels, a company that melts them into a liquid that is sold to plastic producers to recycle. Dow, the chemical company that makes Hefty plastic bags, helps finance the program.

The program makes a small dent in the flow of plastics to landfills, which is a huge environmental problem. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 9% of about 36 million tons of plastic produced annually gets reused or recycled. About 27 million tons gets thrown away and it takes decades or even hundreds of years to break down. About 5 million tons get burned.

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The Cobb County program has saved an estimated 100,000 pounds of plastics from being landfilled since late 2018, said Kimberly White, the director of Keep Cobb Beautiful, which sponsored the program with a $50,000 grant from Dow.

Hefty Energy Bags cost $6.49 for 20 bags at Kroger, or about 32 cents each. The cost of the bags helps cover the costs of the local programs.

Dow has sponsored two other Energy Bag programs in Nebraska and Idaho, and sends plastics gathered in those programs to burn in fueling industries such as cement plants, unlike the metro Atlanta programs. Environmentalist are critical of the Nebraska and Idaho programs for producing pollution.

A Dow spokesperson said the program has taken in more than 1,300 tons of plastics total since 2016. The addition of the Georgia counties will double the total number of nationwide participants.

In metro Atlanta, Nexus heats, vaporizes and distills the plastics into a liquid that can be turned into diesel, naptha or resins to remake plastics. Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is among companies that have invested in Nexus.

Nexus co-founder and president Eric Hartz said the liquid the company makes from the Hefty Energy Bag program goes back into making new plastics for Shell and Chevron. Nexus received an audit from the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification system that certifies the company met sustainability requirements, such as greenhouse gas reductions for the program.

Other plastics processed by the company are made into fuels and other industrial products.

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