TROY, ALA. - Jumping from lead and trucks to plastics seems like quite a leap, but for KW Plastics Recycling Division, it's been a leap of faith. In the late 1970s, founders Kenneth Campbell and Wiley Sanders had faith that recycling plastics was a worthy goal and could be profitable. They kept the faith, and built KW into one of the largest plastics recyclers in the world. The firm today washes, grinds and repelletizes about 150 million pounds annually of poly-propylene from auto battery cases, and more than 200 million pounds of high density polyethylene per year.
The company's HDPE recycling presence has been built from nothing in about three years. Now, KW will expand again to further streamline operations.
Arthur Ferguson, president of the recycling division, said in a March 29 interview at KW's Troy headquarters that a new, 100,000-square-foot building is due to be complete later this year adjacent to KW's existing HDPE plant. The building will house two new wash lines, as well as two wash lines relocated from the existing building, which in turn will allow more space in that facility for grinding and repelletizing.
KW's growth has been steady and assured, based on the founders' idea that the need to recycle plastics not only would become important, but would grow into a viable business opportunity.
Sanders, an amateur aviator and collector of classic aircraft, founded the Wiley Sanders Truck Lines. He built it into one of the largest regional trucking concerns in the nation by the 1970s. Sanders' trucks began picking up used auto batteries, among other freight, and Sanders and Camp-bell set up an operation in Troy to reclaim the lead from batteries.
``In the '70s, landfill space was becoming a problem in many parts of the country,'' said Campbell. ``And at about the same time the automakers began changing their battery cases from a Bakelite-type material to poly-propylene. Those plastic cases began to build up at our lead-reclamation site, and so we began to think about what we could do about them other than putting them in the landfill.''
So the company began to reprocess used battery cases and to sell the material back to the battery makers, Campbell said.
``In 1992 and '93, we saw the potential to build on our poly-propylene recycling and to do HDPE,'' Campbell said. ``We were already close to doing about 85 percent of the batteries, and we knew it had to be a separate process, so we set out to provide blow molding and film-grade HDPE at a fair price.''
Ferguson said the HDPE operations were in partial production for about one year before the quality of the pellets it produced was high enough to suit the owners' goals. They set up a prototype blown film line in the new HDPE recycling facility to test the product and assure the post-consumer and post-industrial material was good enough to make films and high-quality bottles.
``We decided to stay with only HDPE and polypropylene,'' Campbell said. ``We thought about doing PET too, but decided that with about a billion pounds of PET produced in a year, and about 17 billion pounds of HDPE, there was a much better chance with HDPE.''
The availability of the truck lines also boosted KW's ability to get recyclable materials, and to hold down costs. About 15-20 percent of the freight carried by the truck line now is baled feedstock for the recycling division.
The division operates six extrusion lines, including three 8-inch lines and three 6-inch lines, plus an automated flake sorting system. Ferguson said there is room on the Troy site for 11 million pounds of baled material, and about 12 million pounds storage capacity for finished resin on hand in storage silos. A second PP recycling facility operates in Bakersfield, Calif.