Recycler takes on horticultural containers

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Many corporations, investors and executives may have flinched at the idea of opening a plastics recycling plant — particularly one to recycle horticultural containers — in late 2008 and early 2009, when prices for recycled plastic and plastic scrap were plummeting.

But not East Jordan Plastics Inc. and President Cal Diller, or his son Nathan, who is manager for the company's recycling operations, located in South Haven, Mich.

Despite those economic conditions, the Diller family — including Cal and sons Nathan, Scott, Matt and Bryan, who are all heavily involved in the business — strapped on their backs the mantle of extended producer responsibility.

Extended producer responsibility is a notion rapidly advancing in Canada, prevalent in the United Kingdom, but still being resisted, except in a few isolated instances, in the United States.

As an East Jordan, Mich.-based manufacturer of thermoformed plastic horticultural containers, the Diller family had seen prices for virgin and recycled resin fluctuate for years and competitors go out of business because of wild swings in market prices. The Dillers knew they had to take a bold step to better manage supply and pricing for the recycled resins they use in their products.

“Ever since we began making plastic containers, we have tried to use as much recycled resins as possible,” Cal Diller said of the 63-year-old company, which began making plastic containers in 1962. “We realized that we had to be more sustainable in order to sustain our business. In addition, our customers were saying to us: 'Why are we throwing these things out?'

“We are trying to close the loop on products we manufacture,” Diller said. “Everything we are recycling is intended to stay within our loop to manufacture our own containers. All of us in this business have to look at how we use our resources, and to do that we have to take responsibility for what we manufacture.”

His son Nathan subscribes to the same point of view: “I see the day coming when anyone manufacturing a product will have to take responsibility for what happens to it,” he said.

The 130,000-square-foot plant — which can process 10 million pounds of horticultural containers annually — began running 15 months ago, employs 15 full-time workers and has been operating 24 hours a day, five days a week since March. It mainly recycles containers made from polystyrene, polypropylene and polyethylene.

“We are operating at full capacity and are well on the track to do that again this year,” Cal Diller said. “We are making plans to purchase additional equipment, and, if we can generate more material, we'll add more capacity.”

One reason the plant's startup went so smoothly was that by the time East Jordan Plastics purchased the vacant plant in South Haven that previously had housed a Tier 1 automotive supplier, it had researched the recycling idea for more than a year.

The firm studied cost effective ways to turn the recycled plastics back into a reusable raw material, and looked at various infrastructures and systems for recycling horticultural containers — something it claims no U.S. company has done except on a limited scale.

“We had the specifications for the equipment, and the equipment was on order before we purchased the facility near the end of 2008,” Cal Diller said.

Two months after the plant was acquired, the South Haven recycling operation was up and running, and East Jordan Plastics had put together the agreements it needed with growers and major retail garden centers to recycle flower and vegetable trays, flats and pots, hanging baskets and planters.

Essentially, retail garden centers set out shipping carts identified as recycling collection locations where customers can return used horticultural containers. The carts are returned to growers, which can keep the containers they want to reuse. East Jordan picks up the remaining containers — saving growers disposal costs — and takes them to its plant in South Haven, where they are washed, shred and ground.

“The growers have the responsibility for sorting the material [by resin type], but they also have the opportunity to reuse what they want,” Cal Diller said. “We have guidelines on how to sort it and palletize it. The growers are good at consolidating material and getting it back to us.”

The number of retail stores that already have agreed to participate this year is between 600 and 700, nearly triple the 225-250 stores involved a year ago. “And we believe it will go well beyond that,” he said. “We are getting a lot of interest from regional garden centers.”

Nathan Diller said the plant's location is an important factor in its success.

“It works well from a transportation and logistical standpoint because it is near Midwest markets” — about 50 miles south of Grand Rapids, 40 miles west of Kalamazoo and in close proximity to Chicago, he said. “It is on the return route for our trucks that are delivering products” from the company's manufacturing plants in Beaverton and East Jordan.

Although the firm gets a significant portion of its recycled horticultural containers from the Midwest and the Northeast, it has arrangements with growers and retailers throughout North America.

“A lot of the material we get back is generated at the greenhouses that purchase our containers for one-time use,” he said. The South Haven plant also is set up to recycle industrial scrap.

“We have put together a network — that includes brokers and manufacturers that generate scrap — to get that industrial scrap, which is usually much cleaner than post-consumer scrap,” Nathan Diller said.

“We have multiple recycling lines at the plant,” he said. “The majority of our capacity is dedicated to recycling used horticultural containers [but we also] recycle post-industrial scrap and purgings, and scrap parts. We can use that scrap and we can put it back into our products.”

He said the recycling facility is “the key” to making as many containers as possible from plastics reclaimed from the marketplace.

As Cal Diller explained: “This is a valuable raw material and we want to see it put back into making our products.

“The truth of the matter is that recycling plastics greatly reduces our carbon footprint. To lay claims for the products we manufacture, we need to close the loop and recycle and reuse that material to make our products.”

Diller sees greater opportunities down the road for horticultural recycling.

“Once we have developed the right infrastructure, we are prepared to move our concept to other areas of the country to duplicate this,” he said.

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