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City of Valparaiso, Ind. Kimberly Sut, office manager at the Public Works Department for Valparaiso, Ind., with a truck full of plastic bottle caps. The department is teaming up with schools in the city to collect used caps.

One Midwestern city is taking an eye-catching, rotationally molded approach to boost recycling — and is capturing more plastic caps in the process.

Mix nostalgic kitsch with environmentalism and you have what locals are calling Cap-etition.

Valparaiso, Ind.'s city Public Works Department is teaming up with schools in the city to collect used plastic caps, which often get separated from bottles and end up in the trash.

This Cap-etition is part of a larger program to boost recycling and waste diversion in the city, said Kimberly Sut, office manager at the Public Works Department.

But what's unique about this effort is that collected caps will be incorporated into recycled plastic chairs in the shape of a giant hand. Think 1970s decor here.

"It's kind of an artsy home decor thing," explained Shawn Barbagallo, owner of a company appropriately called Hand Shaped Chairs of South Beloit, Ill.

Caps collected by students will be used to help make new chairs given to participating schools, Sut explained.

It was her idea to incorporate a caps collection effort into a larger recycling push by the city, thanks to a grant from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Sut only had to look around her home for inspiration to help tie the community into the effort.


Hand Shaped Chairs E-Z Rotational Molder Inc. of Elk Grove, Ill., molds the chairs for Hand Shaped Chairs.

"The chair is the educational piece that's associated with the program. The chairs are simply to get the word out about the program," he explained.

Sponsors, including Metro Recycling, Homewood Disposal, and Pratt Industries, are actually underwriting the cost of the chairs given to the schools. Money from the grant is going for new recycling carts and equipment as well as updated technology to track recycling participation.

"The plastic chairs, the end products, are donated to the schools so each and every kid, even if they brought in one plastic Coke, Sprite bottle cap, can say, 'I helped make that chair. I had something to do with that chair,'" Lisek said.

"The hardest thing to change on earth is human behavior, and studies show that a lot of different behavior changes can stem from children. By this, we'll be able to educate the children on how recycling should work, what we can and what we should reduce. That's the whole educational piece," he said.

Cap-etition, while novel in its approach, is tackling a bit of a vexing issue in the world of plastics recycling. For years, recyclers told people to remove their caps before recycling because equipment of the time could not handle mixed plastic streams. Beverage bottles commonly are PET, while caps are often HDPE.

And once caps are removed, they typically end up in the trash, even if they are still put in the recycling bin separately.

These days, sortation concerns are evaporating and recyclers typically want the caps to remain on the bottles. Keeping the caps on bottles allows them to travel through equipment at material recovery facilities without being mistaken for small pieces of trash and sent to the landfill. Those caps can then make it to plastic reprocessors as one way to ensure recycling.

While caps do not weigh much compared to other recyclables, the program is part of a larger city push to boost its overall diversion rate from the current 52 percent to a goal of 70 percent.

Barbagallo has been in the plastic hand chair business for nearly 20 years, first selling products made by Rotonics Manufacturing and later acquiring his own mold. He teamed up with E-Z Rotational Molder about four years ago.

"Once this program gets going, we feel there is going to be a ton of interested parties and we're going to have tons and tons of caps," Lisek said.

Sut said schools need to divert 400 pounds of caps to be eligible for a hand chair for a particular reason. That's because the program originally was going to transform them into much heavier benches.

But Sut was looking for a more unique way to gain attention.

"For us, it came out even better than benches," she said.


Hand Shaped Chairs The collected caps are used in rotomolded hand chairs.

"The one I have was from 10 years ago," she said about her own plastic hand chair. "I actually got it from another recycling company; they were raffling off a chair, and I won. I still have it, and I love it. I was glad to bring this alive again."

Valparaiso schools that collect at least 400 pounds of caps will be eligible to win a hand chair. The top 10 schools in the city will be applauded for their efforts and given a hand. A hand chair, that is.

South Shore Clean Cities Inc., a nonprofit, wrote the IDEM grant application for the city. South Shore also connected Valparaiso and Barbagallo, who uses E-Z Rotational Molder Inc. of Elk Grove Village, Ill., to produce his chairs.

The company already has manufactured some chairs using caps and will make more as schools participate in the program.

Barbagallo and E-Z Rotational Molder are using whole caps after learning that ground up closures weakened the chairs.

"We actually did trying grinding up the caps. But it clumped, and it didn't hold together," he said, "because we had a multitude of different material."

Simply mixing in the caps with virgin high density polyethylene works much better, he said. The caps orient themselves differently in the rotational mold. Some face out, and some don't. "It's kind of hit and miss. You might even have the edge of the cap facing outward. It's kind of random how they fall on the chair themselves," Barbagallo said.

Each chair weighs about 25 pounds and can include about 5 pounds of caps, he explained. Higher amounts impact the structural integrity.

"Somebody came up with a great idea here, and we put all of our heads together and made it work. It's a cool end result," Barbagallo said.

Ryan Lisek is a project manager at South Shore.

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