When a leading plastics publication released its list of companies that use the most recycled materials last month, the name at the top was familiar to many Hilliard residents.
ADS, formerly known as Advanced Drainage Systems, took the top spot for using 650 million pounds of recycled plastic in 2021, according to Plastics News.
The company’s goal is to use one 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, sustainability director at ADS, which manufactures drainpipes.
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Plastics News relied on self-reported data and sustainability reports, a representative for the publication said.
How drainpipe maker ADS became the leader in recycling
Decades ago, ADS only used virgin plastic from Gulf Coast petrochemical plants.
“People started experimenting with using recycled materials 20 years ago,” said ADS President and CEO Scott Barbour.
For the Hilliard-based company, the discussion that led to a transition away from virgin plastic began in a conference room at its headquarters on Trueman Boulevard. But the journey was not easy.
Some had to be convinced that the quality of the pipes would not suffer, Barbour said.
Today, the recycled material in drain pipes is indistinguishable from virgin plastic, Voss said.
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“The only difference you see is the color,” she said.
But getting there required careful research, Barbour said. “It’s not (inferior), because we’ve invested in learning materials science.”
Recycled plastic is around 25% cheaper than virgin plastic, Barbour added. The proportion of recycled materials in the company’s pipes ranges from 40% to 90%, depending on the company.
An iconic product
If you’ve been through the Ohio countryside, you’ve probably seen one of ADS’ drainpipes breaking through the dirt in a drainage ditch.
The black, wavy cylinders bear the company’s signature green stripe throughout.
“Our product is iconic,” Barbour said. “It still has the green stripe and it’s been around for a long time.”
The listed company, worth about $7.5 billion, caters primarily to farmers but has expanded into residential stormwater drainage and ships its products throughout North America.
How does the ADS proceed?
ADS buys discarded plastic pellets from municipalities, manufacturers and waste handlers like Rumpke. These pellets, which are obtained from recycled containers, eventually become its flagship product.
If you recycled a shampoo bottle or detergent container in the Columbus area, there’s a higher 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 mixed in the correct quantities. Finding the right process took years of research, Barbour said, and that job is not done.
“We have people with master’s or doctorate degrees in chemical engineering and materials science working on this stuff all the time so we can keep pushing the ball on how to use these materials,” Barbour said.
Obstacles to recycling more
While the pipe maker is constantly looking for ways to use more discarded plastic, a series of obstacles stand in its way, Barbour said.
On the one hand, ADS faces a patchwork of regulations governing its stormwater pipes.
“Different states have different regulations for many 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 stringent for civilian infrastructure built to last, she said.
“There can definitely be variability from state to state,” Miller said.
This variability is a headache for national companies like ADS.
“We have a whole team working on approvals,” Voss said.
ADS has another problem in its goal to use more recycled plastic: there is not enough recycled plastic available.
“It’s a common industry complaint that secondary markets for plastics are difficult to tap into,” Miller said. “And the reasons are very, very complicated.”
On the one hand, recycling rates are low.
“But even when consumers put plastic in their recycling bins, it often doesn’t get recycled the way we would like,” Miller said.
A few years ago, most plastic waste was shipped to China, but the country banned plastic waste in 2017 and the United States hasn’t 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 spur 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 need to be tested before they are melted down, and not everything is strong enough.
“We keep pushing to get more and more recycled products, but it’s quite a long testing process,” Voss said.