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Plastics and rubber recycler eyes growth

By: Mike Scott
RUBBER & PLASTICS NEWS

June 6, 2013

BUFFALO, N.Y. — RubberForm Recycled Products LLC is benefiting financially from its green ways.

The maker of recycled rubber and plastic products for the parking lot, road safety, road construction and a variety of other industries will receive a hydropower allocation of 200 kilowatts added to its existing 100 kilowatt allocation from the New York Power Authority. In addition, it has been awarded a $250,000 Environmental Investment Program grant from the New York State Empire State Development.

That is just the first step of a plan that the company's owner hopes will lead to more state funding and greater growth. The Buffalo-based company has committed to adding 12 new jobs at its Lockport facility, which currently has a work force of 15, said President Bill Robbins, who started the company in 2005.

The fact that Robbins formed his company shortly before the start of a significant recession made it difficult for the firm to become profitable early. But he said RubberForm has focused on excellent customer service, products that customers want and the highest level of quality control to ensure superior recycled material products.

"It has been a challenge for us because our largest competitor out of Canada is partially subsidized by their Canadian provincial government," Robbins said. "We still need to compete and produce a low-cost product that offers more benefits to our customers."

Focus on quality

RubberForm's mission is to create products out of a wide range of recycled materials, and few companies in the U.S. have such a focus, Robbins said. RubberForm uses compression molding to turn scrap tires and waste from computer parts into such items as wheel stops for parking lots and sign bases that hold stop signs at supermarkets and other places.

Besides scrap tire crumb rubber, the company arranges to have delivered each month 80,000 pounds of conveyor belts that were used in coal mines and manufacturing plants along with 40,000 pounds of chopped-up computer boards.

"There are so many uses for scrap tire rubber and recycled products, and while we are having to educate customers, companies are finding more ways to utilize our products," he said. "It comes down to product innovation, listening to the customer, and we're just about the only company in North America outside of a large competitor in Canada and a small one on the West Coast producing these type products. The rest are low-cost, inferior and lower quality options out of China."

One example of an emphasis on quality is that Robbins will put 1-2 percent more polyurethane into his firm's products for a brighter finish and higher quality. RubberForm constantly is looking for other manufacturing partners that understand the marketing, distribution and sales channels in a way that opens up more markets.

"It's tough because we would have to find the right fit of quality and efficiency to help us get more value from the distribution channel," he said.

Tough economics

Funding for growth is a challenge. Robbins estimates the state of New York earns $20 million to $25 million each year in revenue from a recycled tires program similar to those run by other states. He recently asked for $3 million in funding from the state, half in the form of a grant and the other half in low-cost loans. However, the state's allocation of $750,000 over three years will make it difficult for Robbins to hire a large number of new employees and expand his operation.

"We were profitable in 2011, and now we're taking steps to try to grow the business without giving it away to investors," Robbins said. "We have quadrupled production the past few years. We're essentially writing the book for making products out of recycled scrap tire rubber, but we need more help from the state."

The manufacturing process is complex and can't be repeated because recycled products are not derived from a consistent raw material base, he said. RubberForm's goal is to utilize one truckload of rubber each workday, which amounts to about 40,000 pounds of recycled products, utilizing 2,600 scrap tires. The firm currently uses an average of two truckloads each week.

RubberForm is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. The firm said its environmentally friendly products are GreenSpec listed and count toward LEED certification for green building projects.

The company provides additional safety products including: traffic-calming speed bumps and humps, spill containment berms, pipe and hose ramps, safety flooring, roof pavers, signage made from recycled aluminum, playground edging and rubber playground mulch.

One strategy has been to use recycled plastic and e-waste within its products. With the economy improving and sales increasing, clients have more interest in sustainable green products. "Green is the new red, white and blue," Robbins said.

RubberForm also has developed the capabilities to offer clients custom original equipment manufacturing. Robbins has built a team with the capability and expertise to take product ideas from concept to reality.

"Our design, manufacturing and new product development teams can offer expertise to bring new product ideas from concept to a market-ready package," Robbins said. "And being in (metropolitan Buffalo) is a great manufacturing market for us because there is a strong blue-collar, industrialized base that makes finding employees feasible."

In 2010, RubberForm increased its manufacturing shifts from one to three, and while Robbins wouldn't disclose revenues, he said 2011 was the company's first year in the black. He said sales have doubled since 2010.