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Land O’Lakes Works on Closed-Loop Packaging System

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In a quest to develop a closed-loop system for some of its packaging, Land O’ Lakes is collecting and recycling its Purina cattle feed tubs, a tough and logistically complex task that has entailed forging partnerships with some of its dealers and with a lumber manufacturer and a Massachusetts-based recycler.

So far, the mega agriculture and food industries co-op has run several pilots to round up the empty feed tubs, made with high-density polyethylene (HDPE), then ship them out to be turned into unique lumber products, from park benches to floating chicken coops. Now it is looking to expand collections of these and other packaging, and to find more uses for their content, such as the incorporation of materials in horse stalls and other agricultural products.

The precursor to the feed tub recovery work began in 2018 with feed bags.

“Land O’ Lakes was looking for recycling options and started with woven polypropylene (PP), which was hard to find recycling options for,” says Tanya Dowda, director of sourcing business alignment for Land O’Lakes. “So we partnered with Northstar Recycling and began a pilot to offer our customers the opportunity to bring back our bags and competitors’ PP bags. They were collected, separated, and sent out to be converted to pellets that go into secondary products. We got a positive response and expanded to tubs.”

Land O’Lakes has gone on to host promotional events with dealers in which consumers who bring in empty tubs to be recycled receive discounts on new ones.

One of its retailers, Wilco Farm Stores, has showcased the final products spun from these materials— benches with Wilco and Purina logos embossed on them that sit in front of some of its retail outlets.

Northstar had done recycling at Land O’ Lakes facilities nationwide for years when the company approached it with a proposition.

“We had just expanded our partnership with Northstar, and we told them we wanted to look at a longer-term relationship, which was us saying, ‘Here’s our vision. How can we work together to collect the tubs and get finished products back to our customers so we can close the loop?’” Dowda says.

While HDPE scrap is valuable for its durability, it can be hard to recycle because it typically contains additives or is layered with other polymers. But Northstar knew from experience that the material could be melted to make plastic lumber products, so it brought in a lumber company, Bedford Technologies of Worthington, Minn., to process the tubs so they could be turned into plastic lumber products, including floating chicken coops.

“Chickens had been drowning during heavy floods,” says John Trovato, national recycling director at Northstar. “This effort was an innovative closed-loop program where they could sustainably and responsibly manage feed tubs while creating these coops where chickens could retreat and be saved.”

Northstar picks up empty tubs from a centralized location and ships them to Bedford, where they are shredded, pelletized, and made into large lumber boards.

A challenge was residue. This called for an end user more tolerant of contamination than some, Trovato says.

“We immediately thought of plastic lumber companies; they take used milk jugs, which have milk residue,” says Trovato, who is now working with Land O’ Lakes to identify ways to collect and recycle other feed packaging. “We explained to Bedford the importance of what Land O’Lakes wanted to do. This was a big initiative with a Fortune 500 company with huge visibility. We said if we can make it work, we can all be part of a positive story of a business with a lot of clout.”

Land O’ Lakes is now expanding its tub and bag collection and recycling programs in the Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast. Benches and fence posts are the primary products made from these programs.

“As we continue to expand and evaluate fluctuating markets, we learn more as an organization,” Dowda says. “Moving forward, we will continue to partner with our customers and suppliers as we develop sustainable, innovative solutions.

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