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Recycling gives plastics a picture-perfect second life

The plastic, foam or cardboard that once safeguarded your shiny, new appliance might make its way back to your home as a picture frame, insulation or decking material.

Lowe’s Central Delivery Terminal (CDT) in Charlotte, North Carolina, delivers hundreds of appliances directly to customers. Before being loaded on a delivery truck, each microwave, refrigerator, dishwasher or range is removed from its original packaging, leaving behind as much as two or three tons of cardboard, plastic and foam. That’s the equivalent of generating a pile of waste the size of an elephant every day.

Rather than toss the castoffs in the local landfill, Lowe’s compresses the cardboard, plastic and foam for third-party manufacturers to turn into useful, new products.

Baling and sorting the waste left behind from customers’ new appliances is a process within itself. The Charlotte CDT uses a densifier to extract the air from the plastic foam and squish it into a brick. The remaining, airless material looks like it could be just the thing for building igloos.

Sixteen bricks of plastic and foam are stacked to make a pallet. It’s delivered to plastic manufacturers who’ll melt the recycled materials and extrude new blocks of plastic foam in different shapes and sizes. The primary use for the compressed foam is picture frames. It’s also used to make insulation, which is increasing in demand. Other companies take just the plastic and turn it into plastic decking that is practically maintenance free.

The CDT produces an average of one to two pallets of plastic foam bricks a day and nine to 11 pallets a week. That’s enough to fill the average backyard swimming pool twice.

Cardboard is another byproduct of delivering all those appliances, and it gets recycled, too. A baler at the CDT compresses cardboard into half-ton packages. These heavy cardboard bales are collected in a trailer, then delivered to paper mills, where they undergo the process of “hydro-pulping.”

It’s kind of like making cardboard soup. Cardboard bales enter a large, 20-foot-deep mixing bowl, called a pulping drum. The drum is then filled with hot, but not boiling, water (around 130 degrees Fahrenheit). Blades at the bottom of the drum spin to agitate the cardboard and force it to break down, allowing the cardboard and water to form a pulp.

From there, the pulp is used to create new cardboard boxes, just in time to protect your next new appliance.