May 29, 2024

Recycling: ADS in Hilliard tops in plastics reuse, sustainability

When a leading plastics publication last month unveiled its list of companies that use the most recycled material, the name in the top spot was familiar to many Hilliard residents.

ADS, once known as Advanced Drainage Systems, took the No. 1 slot for using 650 million pounds of recycled plastic in 2021, according to Plastics News.

The company's goal is to use a billion pounds by 2032.

"It's efficient, it's cost effective, but we're also doing it to make sure we're contributing to the circular economy," said Nicole Voss, director of sustainability for ADS, which manufactures drain pipes.

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Plastics News relied on self-reported data and sustainability reports, a representative of the publication said.

Decades ago, ADS used only virgin plastic acquired from petrochemical plants on the Gulf Coast.

"People began to experiment with using recycled material 20 years ago," ADS President and CEO Scott Barbour said.

For the Hilliard-based company, the discussion that led to a transition away from virgin plastic began in a conference room in its headquarters on Trueman Boulevard. But the journey wasn't an easy one.

Some had to be convinced the pipe quality wouldn’t suffer, Barbour said.

Today the recycled material in the drainage pipes is indistinguishable from virgin plastic, Voss said.

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"The only difference you see is color," she said.

But getting there required painstaking research, Barbour said. "It's not (inferior), because we invested in learning the material science."

Recycled plastic is around 25% less expensive than virgin plastic, Barbour added. The proportion of recycled material in the company’s pipes ranges from 40% to 90%, according to the company.

If you’ve driven through rural Ohio, you’ve likely seen one of ADS’s drainage pipes poking through the dirt into a drainage ditch.

The black, corrugated cylinders bear the company’s signature green stripe from end to end.

"Our product is iconic," Barbour said. "It always has the green stripe and it's been around for a long time."

The publicly-traded company, worth about $7.5 billion, mostly caters to farmers, but has expanded into residential stormwater drainage and ships its products throughout North America.

ADS buys pellets of discarded plastic from municipalities, manufacturers and refuse companies like Rumpke. Those pellets, which are procured from recycled containers, eventually become its signature product.

If you’ve recycled a shampoo bottle or a container of detergent in the Columbus area, there is a better-than-average chance that it ended up in one of the company’s pipes.

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"The pellets are heated, extruded through a dye, and then cooled in that dye to form the corrugated plastic pipe," Voss said.

ADS has several recycling facilities in Ohio, including one in London, just west of Columbus in Madison County.

The material must be tested, separated, and blended in the right quantities. Finding the right process took years of research, Barbour said, and that work isn’t finished.

“We have people with a masters or a PhD in chemical engineering and material science that are working on this kind of stuff all the time so we can continue to advance the ball on how to use these materials,” Barbour said.

While the pipe maker is constantly on the lookout for ways to use more discarded plastic, a series of barriers stand in its path, Barbour said.

For one thing, ADS faces a patchwork of regulations governing its stormwater pipes.

"Different states have different regulations for lots of different applications," said Shelie Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan's School for the Environment and Sustainability.

The rules govern everything from durability to the material that goes into the product, and are particularly strict for civil infrastructure that is designed to last, she said.

"Certainly there can be variability from state to state," Miller said.

That variability is a headache for national companies like ADS.

"We have a whole team that works on approvals," Voss said.

ADS hits another snag in its goal to use more recycled plastic: Not enough recycled plastic is available.

"It's a common complaint in the industry that secondary plastic markets are difficult to tap into," Miller said. "And the reasons are very, very complicated."

For one thing, recycling rates are low.

"But even when consumers are putting plastics in their recycling bins, many times it's not getting recycled as we would like it to be," Miller said.

A few years ago, most plastic waste was shipped to China, but the nation banned plastic waste in 2017, and the United States has not developed the infrastructure to handle the excess plastic.

Voss hopes efforts to encourage recycling, some of which were included in a federal infrastructure law last year, will push Americans to put more plastic in the recycling bin.

The final barrier to using more recycled plastic is the company's own standards. Plastic pellets must be tested before they are melted down, and not all of it is sturdy enough.

"We keep pushing to get more and more recycled product in, but it's a pretty lengthy testing process," Voss said.

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