By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Less than a week after Rhode Island rolled out its new single-stream recycling system, Michael Brown placed a plastic cup of water on a conference room table before sitting down with a reporter. As he took his seat, he noted with a wide grin, that the cup is now recyclable in Rhode Island.
Brown, 54, who wears black-rimmed glasses and sports a wisp of a goatee below his lower lip, is the owner of Packaging 2.0, and he is thrilled about the state’s new recycling program, which now accepts most plastics Nos. 1-7, including clamshell containers.
This means that the 100 percent post-consumer plastic clamshell packaging his company sells is now recyclable in the Ocean State.
Packaging 2.0, which is based in Jamestown but has office space at the Box Office in Olneyville, is an innovator in the plastics industry. Its top container, a green clamshell container made from 100 percent recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate), can be found at Whole Foods Markets in the Northeast and North Atlantic regions.
“We’re just trying to close the loop,” Brown said, turning the clamshell over in his hands. “You can infinitely recycle this package.” And now, so long as the package is put in the recycling bin here in the Ocean State, the loop is closed.
Here’s how it works: post-consumer recycled PET from bottles or other plastic packaging is washed and ground into small fragments. These fragments are further refined into small pellets called resin that look like oversized Tic Tacs. Packaging 2.0’s manufacturers in Michigan and Massachusetts work with either PET fragments or PET resin to make new clamshell containers.
As the founder of Packaging 2.0, it is Brown’s goal to assist client companies in bringing environmentally friendly plastic packaging to market. His company works with a network of partners to provide design, materials, manufacturing and global logistics.
You could say Brown was born into the world of plastics. Shortly after he was born, his father founded a plastics company, Crystal Thermoplastics Inc. in Pawtucket. Throughout his youth, Brown pitched in at the family business. But, when he was a young adult, Brown left Rhode Island and the plastics industry to run a screen-printing business in the Caribbean.
Brown was at Blackbeard’s Screenprinting in St. Thomas, when, as Brown tells it, one day his dad approached him and said, “Let’s trade places.”
“My father convinced me that I could do more in the business than on the outside,” Brown said.
And, so, eventually, they did trade places, with Brown returning to the United States in 1985 to become principal and vice president of sales and marketing at his father’s business, and since then, he’s worked to reform plastics from the inside out.
According to Brown, at Crystal Thermoplastics and then Ivex, which bought Crystal in 1997, “We were already working with recycled PET — (from) soda and water bottles — for display packaging and recycled HDPE — (from) milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles — for protective packaging.”
When he founded Packaging 2.0, working with recycled materials became a cornerstone of his company’s philosophy. Making a container out of 100 percent recycled material has been one of Brown’s goals, and while he can check that one off his list, he has an even loftier goal of boosting the poor recycling rate for PET, which currently hovers at only 30 percent.
“I’ve got to do something,” Brown said. “As long as (these plastics) stay within the system, it is fine.” But, with only 30 percent of all PET being recycled, much of this plastic ends up in landfills, or worse, on roadsides, on beaches and in ocean.
An avid boater, Brown is keenly aware of the insidious problem of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, and so this May he decided to witness the problem firsthand. Brown signed up to tour the so-called “Garbage Patch” in the Pacific Ocean with a group of scientists and a few other civilians aboard the Sea Dragon.
The expedition, led by Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D., began at the Majuro Atoll in the Marshal Islands. From there, the Sea Dragon sailed through the North Pacific Gyre 2,600 miles to Japan.
There is no island of plastic, according to Brown. But, rather, the problem of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre is far more insidious: small pieces of plastic that get caught up in the water column.
These tiny fragments of plastic float in the water and are all too often consumed by fish and waterfowl. Brown keeps a bleak souvenir from his recent expedition. It is a glass jar filled with tiny bits of plastic. He shakes it, and like a snow globe, the tiny bits swirl around inside — a mini-blizzard of plastic flakes.
“There was not one plastic free sample in the gyre,” Brown said.
Back in Rhode Island, when Brown goes to the beach, he sees plastic everywhere. “I can’t pick up everything, so I tell myself I’m just going to pick up one thing a day — to set an example.”
With plans to create a presentation highlighting what he saw on his trip, Brown hopes to increase awareness about the end-of-life issues surrounding the products his industry creates.
Brown is the first to recognize that his vocation in the field of plastics and his avocation as a sailor may appear to be at loggerheads. “Plastic has allowed me to be a sailor,” he said. “I have to make a living. There is a lot of irony there, but a lot of awakening too.”