By Tess Ware
In March of this year, with the help of the Carton Council of North America, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, Cheboygan paper producer Great Lakes Tissue was able to purchase equipment that would allow them to cut down on waste, save money and invest in Michigan’s growing circular economy.
Great Lakes Tissue takes material that would end up in landfills, extracts the usable fiber and uses that material to create their products. However, fiber isn’t the only material that makes up those products and the company ends up with about 30 percent plastic and aluminum residuals called polyethylene and poly/aluminum that they can’t use to make something new.
With $250,000 contributed from EGLE and the carton council, as well as additional funding from MDARD, Great Lakes Tissue purchased a high-density extruder that reduced the amount of water in the leftover plastic waste from 60 percent to 15 percent, making it lighter and easier to ship. They also purchased a compactor and a walking floor trailer to haul the material. Not only did this reduce water usage, but also greenhouse gas emissions since they could now transport the polyfill material in fewer loads
“Great Lakes Tissue is a great example of a Northern Michigan business that is a world leader in making sure that your milk cartons are turned into something that’s usable, like toilet paper. We recognized that there was a challenge,” said EGLE Recycling Market Development Specialist Matt Fletcher.
“As we’re trying to recycle all this material, only a portion of that milk carton is getting recycled. So one of the best ways we can increase our recycling rate is to make sure that less of that material goes to landfill and more of it gets turned into new products.”
According to Julie LaFond, plant engineer and general project manager at Great Lakes Tissue, the company is now shipping approximately 60,000 tons less water every year.
“There’s a lot of potential and uses out there to actually take our residual waste material and turn it into another product, which is the big thing right now in the state with the whole recycling circuit. The big term is circular economy,” LaFond said.
“The whole idea is you use as few raw resources as possible. If you have a waste product, or you have a product when it gets to the end of (its life), say a plastic water bottle, the whole idea of a circular economy is instead of then sourcing more materials to make another brand new plastic water bottle, you take that and you turn it into another product to reduce the amount of raw, virgin material that you’re using.”
Great Lakes Tissue takes the polyfill material that is unusable for them and ships it to other companies that can find a use for it. LaFond said right now, the only company they ship to is St. Marys Cement in Charlevoix who use the material as a fuel replacement for coal, since it burns much cleaner.
In addition to reducing their own waste, Great Lakes Tissue’s goal is to find other Michigan companies that can use the polyfill to create new products, “like soles of shoes that are made out of recycled material, to synthetic decking, to reusable pallets that are made of plastic instead of wood,” LaFond said.
“We have kind of a double interest in the recycling industry in the state of Michigan and regionally, not only bringing in recycled materials but also then looking for a use for this end waste byproducts that we have,” LaFond said.
“To have the support from two state agencies and then a regionally active group within the recycling industry is huge. We’re a small company and it’s not something we would have been able to afford to do on our own. And there’s a lot of potential. It really opens up the doors for future collaborations and other equipment that we might identify that could really help grow our business or support our recycling goals.”
Collaboration between businesses, the state and private organizations is essential for increasing recycling and expanding Michigan’s circular economy.
“So there is a lot of collaborations with businesses because the way we’ve been doing things with our waste, it’s not sustainable long term. It’s not sustainable for our environment and it’s also not sustainable for our economy,” Fletcher said.
“Why are we paying to put something in a hole in the ground and then watch it for generations and hope that it doesn’t leak? Hope that it doesn’t create groundwater contamination, (but) make sure that it’s not a problem of the future. So everybody’s realizing that and knowing that there’s opportunities to invest and grow that system and (create) jobs.”