Plant in Virginia makes millions of plastic bags for stores

June 23, 2019
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This photo taken May 22, 2019, shows the Novolex factory in Henrico, Va., that is one of the largest producers of plastic shopping bags. Large sheets are sent through a series of steps before being packed in boxes for shipping. With 112 employees, the factory operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has been making plastic bags since 1993 and was previously owned by Vanguard Plastics, which was acquired by Novolex in 2005. (Joe Mahoney/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — When Boyd Selby goes shopping and sees people getting their groceries or other products put into plastic bags, he’ll sometimes point out a little-known fact about the origin of those bags.

“The checkout person probably has no idea, so I will take that opportunity to talk to them,” Selby said. ”’I’ll say, ‘Hey, did you know that there is a pretty good chance this bag was made right here in Richmond, Virginia?’ Usually, they’ll say, ‘I had no idea.’ ”

Selby is plant manager at the Novolex plant in eastern Henrico County. Every day, the factory produces enough plastic bags to fill seven or eight tractor-trailer trucks.

Those bags, made under the Hilex Poly brand name, go to grocery and retail stores all over the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, and sometimes nationwide. The company declined to provide the names of its customers.

Shoppers can find out whether a bag was made at the Henrico plant by looking for the numbers “375” printed on the bag.

With 112 employees, the factory operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has been making plastic bags since 1993 and was previously owned by Vanguard Plastics, which was acquired by Novolex in 2005.

Based in Hartsville, S.C., Novolex had about $2.4 billion in revenue in 2017, according to the latest figures available from Forbes magazine’s annual list of the nation’s largest privately-held companies. Novolex was listed at No. 193 on last year’s list.

In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the Henrico plant underwent two expansions, which added 40,000 square feet of warehouse space along with additional converting lines and extruding equipment.

Demand for plastic bags rises during the holiday shopping season, but the local plant is operating at capacity pretty much the whole year, Selby said.

“During the peaks, we can’t produce enough,” he said. “During the valleys, that is our time to build.”

With the overall economy growing, demand remains strong even though businesses have been facing pressure to reduce the use of plastic bags. Concerns about the environmental impact of plastic bag litter have led some state and local governments to ban plastic bags or impose fees on their use.

In March, for instance, New York state lawmakers passed a ban on single-use plastic bags in retail sales, joining California which passed similar restrictions in 2016. Lawmakers in Oregon also recently passed a bill to ban single-use plastic bags.

The bans are not absolute. New York’s law, for instance, has exceptions such as permitting the use of plastic bags for prepared food sales, prescription drugs or bulk sales. Counties in New York also have the option to impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags, a move designed to encourage people to reuse bags when shopping.

Company officials with Novolex are emphasizing recycling as a solution, and they point to the Henrico plant as a good example of how recycling can be integrated into the supply chain.

The company doesn’t just make plastic bags. With 60 facilities in North America and Europe, it produces more than a dozen brands of bags and packaging, including paper bags.

“We make a lot of things out of recycled content,” said Phil Rozenski, Novolex’s vice president of public affairs and former senior director of sustainability. “We also make paper grocery bags out of recycled content.”

“The way we frame it as a company is we are about choice, sustainability and innovation,” Rozenski said. “We want people to have a choice. If people use a plastic bag, we want to use recycled content.”

Novolex has set up a “closed-loop” recycling system in which the company makes new bags from old ones.

Under the “Bag 2 Bag” program established by the industry, consumers are encouraged to return their used plastic bags to one of 30,000 drop-off locations across the U.S.; there are more than 150 drop-off locations in the Richmond region, mainly at large retail chains and grocery stores.

The company reclaims those bags, which are then shredded and broken down into plastic resin pellets at a plant in North Vernon, Ind. The main contaminant that has to be removed from old plastic bags before they can be recycled is paper receipts from retail sales, Rozenski said.

Some of those plastic resin pellets are transported to the Henrico facility by train. “We really treat it like gold here,” Selby said. “It is very precious to us.”

Pure plastic resin is clear in color, but the pellets that arrive at the Henrico plant often have a brown or gray color, indicating that the material is recycled.

“Years ago, retailers all wanted a white bag — it’s great for showing your logo,” Rozenski said. “We started to educate retailers that by changing the color of their bags to gray or brown, we can put more recycled content in there. The darker the bag, the more recycled content.”

At the factory, the pellets are melted down and extruded to create sheets of plastic for new bags. The factory has printing equipment to print whatever logos or designs their retail customers prefer for their bags.

“All along during the process, we are very conscious about what we do with the material that did not go into a bag,” Selby said. “What we don’t do with it is throw it away.”

“This facility is near zero waste,” Rozenski added. “Everything that comes in here is going to go out as a product.”


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com

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