This Milesburg plant took heat when Pa. blocked plastic bag bans. Is it doing enough to be sustainable?

Milesburg plastic bag plant doesn’t want to be ‘poster boy’ for pollution

Hilex Poly in Milesburg is owned by Novolex, a plastic bag company which prides itself on sustainability.
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Hilex Poly in Milesburg is owned by Novolex, a plastic bag company which prides itself on sustainability.

After Pennsylvania passed legislation to bar townships from enacting plastic bag bans, a Centre County company got the brunt of some statewide criticism.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said his support for that legislation, a last-minute budget bill, came with good intentions. But some residents and fellow legislators accused him of of catering to one business — Novolex’s Hilex Poly — a plastic bag manufacturer in Milesburg.

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware, Montgomery) called Corman’s actions “consistent with a continuing, parochial effort to protect the Novolex plastic bag manufacturing plant in his district.”

The ban is in effect for at least a year while legislative agencies study the economic and environmental impact, putting plans on hold in municipalities including Ferguson Township, where the board of supervisors had planned to introduce an ordinance that would impose a 10 cent impact fee on single use plastic bags.

For Hilex Poly, company officials say maintaining sustainability practices is important, as is keeping its more than 100 employees at work.

“With every single product that we manufacture, we focus on what is the most sustainable way to manufacture this product,” said Mark Daniels, senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Hilex Poly parent company Novolex.

Pam Steckler, who circulated a petition in support of the fee last year, called the legislation a setback for Ferguson Township and its efforts to become more sustainable.

“This is deeply saddening,” Steckler said. “Jake Corman admittedly came up with this stall to protect a single company.”

After hearing about the potential ordinance in Ferguson Township, Corman told the CDT in July that he is also responsible for representing the Milesburg plant, a company he said is working to minimize its carbon footprint.

‘Nothing gets wasted here’

Daniels said his company was “delighted” elected officials took the plant into account, saying that Novolex’s products shouldn’t be blamed for causing environmental harm. With 60 manufacturing facilities worldwide and 50 across the county, including Milesburg’s Hilex Poly, Daniels said Novolex is responsible for “10,000 family members” and is a “good economic driver.”

“For every one job that is created by Hilex Poly in Milesburg, there’s another two that are created to support this business,” Daniels said.

Hilex Poly plant manager Bill Zajac walks along a machine printing logos onto the plastic bags on Wednesday. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Of the 157 employees at Hilex Poly in Milesburg, plant manager Bill Zajac said some live in the borough where they can walk to work while others commute up to 30 miles a day. Kurt Kosut said he has been working at the plant for 26 years. Despite his 30-mile drive to the plant everyday, Kosut said the facility is a great place to work.

“Nothing gets wasted here,” Kosut said. “That’s a good thing ... Everything we do here gets put back into the system. It’s like a big circle.”

Using train cars, the Milesburg plant receives plastic pellets from Texas. The pellets, which are about the size of a pencil eraser, are made from natural gas. Once they arrive at the plant, they are mixed with raw material to create a roll of film which then goes through the manufacturing process. The film is run through a printing press where it is then sealed and has handles cut out, with the end result being a plastic bag.

Plant manager Bill Zajac holds a handful of recycled plastic pellets that will be used to make new bags at Hilex Poly on Wednesday. Hilex Poly is a plastic bag plant owned by Novolex. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Once scrap is collected, Zajac said it is ground up, melted and made into pellets, starting the production process over again.

“We have the means to be able to take that material in and convert it into the same product again,” Zajac said. “It goes from a pellet, to a bag, back to a pellet, to a bag and that just continues on. I’m not sure what the final value is, but we’re not degrading the plastic at all. It still keeps its same properties.”

The Milesburg plant, Zajac said, has one of the lowest amounts of scrap in the Hilex retail sector.

“We’re about 7% scrap in our manufacturing process,” Zajac said.

The cutouts from the handles for a plastic bag drop into a bin to be melted down and reused at the Hilex Poly facility in Milesburg on Wednesday, August 14, 2019. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

In order to supplement the plant’s 40% of recycled content, Zajac said the Milesburg manufacturer processes scrap from sister plants with more than they can handle. A recycling center in North Vernon, Indiana, takes excess materials and converts post-consumer products into pellets.

“Recycling helps out the environment and helps out our bottom-line, too, because it saves us money getting that recycled content back into the product,” Zajac said. “It’s a lower cost than something that we buy as virgin material.”

The reduce, reuse, recycle debate

Producing a variety of paper and plastic products, Novolex also offers products made out of recycled materials.

However, reusing plastic bags is the biggest competitor to recycling them, Daniels said.

“Think about bottles and cans,” Daniels said. “If you have a (can) ... what are you going to do with that? You put it into your recycling container. It’s a one-use.”

Mark Daniels, the Novolex senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy, talks about the products the company makes at the plant in Milesburg. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

While plastic bags are found in landfills, they weren’t necessarily used just once, Daniels said, referencing how they can be used for trashcan liners and to pick up pet waste.

When Steckler was proposing the Ferguson Township ordinance, she said reusable bags would have more positive and long-term environmental impacts, talking specifically about climate change. Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted to examine how many times bags need to be used and reused to mitigate environmental impacts.

A 2018 Danish study looked at the number of times a plastic bag should be reused before being used as a trash liner and then throw away. Most reusable bags found at grocery stores should be used 37 times, paper bags should be used 43 times and cotton bags should be used 7,100 times, the study said.

A 2011 Britain study found that reusable bags are a decent option as long as consumers remember to use them — often.

Daniels doesn’t think Hilex Poly’s products should be the “poster boy” for pollution, saying that the company makes a good faith effort to be sustainable in its practices.

Daniels declined to disclose how many bags the plant produces per day but said, “we don’t make one more bag than what our customers order.”

“I will say this, there’s a lot of shoppers in the United States,” Daniels said.

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.