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China’s Lack of Plastic Trash Imports Leads to Business Boost for Evansville Manufacturer

A manufacturer of recycled plastic products in Evansville, Indiana is experiencing a surge in business due, in part, to China halting the import of plastic trash last year. Green Tree Plastics is now expanding partnerships with major corporations.

The family-owned company is also meeting the growing demand from student groups to produce benches and picnic tables from what most Americans have been sending to landfills -  plastic bottle caps.

The playground at Holy Name Catholic School in Henderson, Kentucky has a couple of special benches. They’re made from recycled plastic caps and lids, from water bottles, milk jugs, yogurt cups, toothpaste, coffee cans, peanut butter, and lots of other containers.

"This bench, and this one here, have been here probably going on 10 years, and they’re going to last forever,” said Yvonne Drury, the school’s recycling coordinator.

It takes 200 pounds of caps to make one six-foot bench. 

“We collect about six large 55 gallon drums about every two months and then they’re taken to Green Tree,” said Drury.

Green Tree Plastics is a manufacturer of recycled plastic lumber located just across the Ohio River from Henderson, Kentucky, in Evansville, Indiana. 

A Recycling Partnership

Since Nov. 2, 2009, Holy Name Catholic School has delivered 18,756 pounds of caps and lids to Green Tree Plastics, said company Vice President Cara Bornefeld. Those caps are made into benches or picnic tables for the school, or dontated to other groups.

"So from there we started to get calls from Kansas, from an aunt saying, 'Why is my nephew screaming at me to not throw my bottle caps away?' "

That means Holy Name has kept about 1.7 million caps and lids out of their landfill and community, said Bornefeld. "We are so proud of them and our other groups participating in our partnership."

The ABC Promise Partnership began as a collaboration between Holy Name and Green Tree Plastics.

A Commitment to Recycling

Holy Name School's dedication to recycling plastic, paper, and other materials began with parent Leigh Ann Hengen. She passed away a few years ago, but Drury said Hengen's passion for recycling lives on in the school's students, faculty and staff. The plastic cap recycling program has become so widely popular that parents and community members continuously drop off bags or boxes of the caps. Some alumni who have moved away even mail in boxes of plastic caps.  

Bornefeld said 10 years ago Holy Name students approached the owner of Green Tree, asking if they could develop a sustainability project that would recycle plastic caps and lids that were ending up in landfills. 

Bornefeld said the reason those caps ended up in landfills "is because you have so many cap and closure manufacturers running so many different types of plastic, with different melt rates and what not, and the contamination level, normal plastic manufacturing companies just cannot run this type of material through their machines.”

Green Tree took on the challenge of those plastic caps and collaborated with the students from Holy Name to create what became the ABC Promise Partnership. ABC stands for 'A Bench for Caps.'

Bornefeld said the students won second place in a state competition and that came with funding that would allow the project to continue for a year.

Bornefeld said word got around. 

“Well, then we started getting calls, 'Oh, I heard about this school that got a bench from saving bottle caps. Do you offer that?’  ‘And yes, we can do that for you.’ So from there we started to get calls from Kansas, from an aunt saying, ‘Why is my nephew screaming at me to not throw my bottle caps away?’ ”

She said the program just kept growing.

"So right now, we currently have close to 6,000 organizations in 37 states coast-to-coast actively participating in the ABC partnership program,” Bornefeld said.

The program teaches more than recycling.

“I have preschoolers learning their shapes and their colors, all the way to high school and college students using it in their science classes, breaking down the molecular structure between high density polyethylene and polypropylene,” said Bornefeld.  

Corporations Searching for Recycling Options

Now Green Tree is in the midst of another creative business "moment." It was set into motion last year when China stopped importing plastic waste from the United States.

“Huge corporations are now going, ‘Oh, wow, we have to look at our waste stream. You know, what can be reused? What can be processed?” said Bornefeld.

"I love that I'm getting calls from huge corporate entities and we're starting to develop projects."

Some of those big companies are looking to Green Tree for answers.

“I love that I’m getting calls from huge corporate entities and we’re starting to develop projects," said Bornefeld. "We have developed a CPR project, Corporate Partners Recycle, for those huge corporate entities, like Silgan, Berry Plastics, Berry Global, Walgreens." 

Green Tree Plastics is a family-owned business with 20 employees that’s found itself in an accelerated growth mode with the demand for ABC Promise and corporate partnerships. So one project on the drawing board now is a plan for expansion. 

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