All those Flint water bottles

Many individuals, agencies and businesses provided water to Flint residents. What happened to the millions of empty plastic water bottles after they were used?

Plastic water bottle
Plastic water bottle

Many of us stepped up during the worst of the Flint water crisis. People from around the country donated hundreds of thousands of cases of bottled water and/or money to purchase bottled water to ensure the health and safety of the Flint residents. The positive impact of this goodwill gesture had an unintended consequence: What do we do with all those empty water bottles?

Flint’s disposal of all these plastic water bottles could increase significantly without ways to divert this material from landfills. Many of us think that recycling ends when you drop off material at a recycling center or put it in the bin at the curb. Unless that material makes its way to being used in a new product, the recycling loop is not closed.

The Do Your Part Program, a recycling program through General Motors (GM), added nearly two million Flint water bottles to its recycling initiative. In addition to the millions of Flint bottles, it also collects plastic water bottles from five of its facilities in Detroit, Warren, Lake Orion and Flint. GM partners with 11 other companies to take this plastic material from water bottles to fleece. The recycled fleece is used for three products: Chevy Equinox engine covers, insulation for Empowerment Plan coats for the homeless, and air filters for 10 GM plants.

These efforts exemplify the closed loop system of the recycling symbol instead of the use and dispose system of the past. Each of the 11 partnering companies has a specific role in this process, from collection to turning the flaked plastic into resin to creating the fiber from the resin. Over half of the partnering companies are Michigan-based with the remaining from other states and Canada:

  • Hamtramck Recycling bails the bottles.
  • Clean Tech, Inc. washes the converts the bottles in flake material.
  • Unifi, Inc. transforms the flakes into plastic resin.
  • Palmetto Synthetics process the resin into fiber.
  • William T. Burnett & Co. processes the fiber into three forms of fleece for each use.
  • Rogers Foam diecuts the fleece.
  • EXO-s attaches the nylon cover for the fleece used for the engine covers.
  • Filtration Services Group works with N.E.W. Life to make the air filter panels for the GM plants.
  • Carhartt cuts the fleece used for the coat to sleeping bag product.

Two Michigan non-profit organizations, N.E.W. Life Center and The Empowerment Plan, use the fleece to provide employment training and skill building. After-at-risk individuals participate in programs dedicated to employment preparation or life change, N.E.W. Life training center employs them to further develop their skills and makes air filters for the GM plants. The Empowerment Plan hires previously homeless women as seamstresses to make the coats that transform into sleeping bags for the homeless.

GM identified three benefits from the Do Your Part program:

  • Saving energy and reducing waste
  • Strengthening the economy through business partnerships
  • Helping the homeless

While economic benefits from waste disposal reduction and jobs hasn’t been quantified yet, data shows that over two million plastic bottles have been diverted from the Flint waste stream through this effort. It seems that instead of creating another environmental problem from the Flint water crisis, the response from around the country is having indirect positive benefits as well. 

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