ICYMI: NEMO playing a critical role in plastic industry future

May 14, 2021

Originally published in Plastics Machinery Magazine

The Plastics Industry Association’s NEMO projects tackle the logistical or technical challenges of plastics recycling.

By Ron Shinn

Trade associations have a high profile in Washington, D.C., where they court politicians and try to influence public policy in ways that benefit their members. 

The Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) certainly does that in very visible ways; however, its New End Market Opportunities (NEMO) initiatives are more below the radar but equally important to the long-term success of all companies in the plastics supply chain.

NEMO projects tackle the logistical or technical challenges of plastics recycling. PLASTICS sets the agenda and brings together companies inside and outside of the plastics industry, universities and even other trade organizations interested in solving roadblocks to recycling. Companies do not have to be members of PLASTICS to participate. The association invests money in NEMO projects, but the volunteer companies also share costs through significant in-kind contributions.

“We take in early adopters when the path is not very clear for them,” said Patrick Krieger, senior director of materials and sustainability at PLASTICS. “They are essentially having to blaze a new trail and find new partners. Other companies see them creating a new process and join.

“This is the open-idea ethos of the program,” he said. “We share these things and the industry itself will continue to grow.”

NEMO projects do not create end products to sell, Krieger said: “We are trying to develop information in the form of reports, case studies and demonstration projects,” so companies can make good business decisions. 

The NEMO program is run by a 12-person advisory committee from PLASTICS member companies that selects projects, monitors progress and determines the direction of each project.  

The committee, which is a subcommittee of PLASTICS’ recycling committee, has a list of 22 proposed projects. In July the committee is expected to select two new NEMO projects for 2022.

The first NEMO project was launched in 2017 to understand different feed streams of PE film, improve the economics of recycling it and explore new uses. That project is still going on and another NEMO project to research using recycled film in asphalt was spun off from the original film project.

Krieger said the committee will decide this summer if the next phase of the film project will focus on variations in processing the film or on specific products.

The use of recycled PE film in asphalt has captured some national attention. LyondellBasell paved a portion of the parking lot at its technical center in Cincinnati, using a solid additive consisting of about 71,000 recycled retail bags developed by the NEMO project. The project is trying to determine if recycled film offers the same benefits as traditional polymer-modified asphalt but at a lower cost. (Read more at plasticsmachinerymanufacturing.com/21217838.)

Krieger said the LyondellBasell pavement is scheduled for a six-month project review in May, but early indications are that it has performed well. One LyondellBasell employee reported in April that the pavement has shown no wear after five months of use, including snow being plowed multiple times. 

Two other companies — Target and Chevron Phillips Chemical — have said they want to test the process.

In addition to the film and asphalt NEMO projects, a secondary sorting demonstration project in the Pacific Northwest has already been completed. The project used a portable secondary sorting system to create six additional streams of recyclables. The American Chemistry Council, one of the partners in that project, is currently duplicating it in the Northeast.

“That project was more about infrastructure,” Kreiger said. “It will inform and influence our discussions and policy decisions going forward on how we can better support the infrastructure of plastics recycling.” 

A NEMO project to demonstrate end-of-life vehicle bumper recycling has drawn a lot of inquiries from processors and recyclers, according to Krieger. The next phase of that project may look at recycling other plastics from cars.

“Companies would love to recycle bumpers because they are so big and take up a lot of dumpster space,” Krieger said. “By demonstrating there is commercial value to this, other companies will see if it works for them.”

NEMO projects do not generate quick profits. They are akin to basic research, which trade associations rarely spend time doing. 

“The only way I judge success of a NEMO project is how much plastic is diverted from landfills,” Krieger said. 

I would add that every little step in improving recycling practices and technology is a big win for the entire industry. The level of collaboration on NEMO projects between companies and organizations is impressive and is the cornerstone for success. 

The R&D work machinery manufacturers do to improve their own technology is important, but NEMO projects expand awareness and inform the industry where new opportunities exist.