Environmental Recycling Inc. wants to recycle humanity as much as the company wants to recycle plastics.
President Art Morey figures life has been pretty good to him, thanks to the success of his chain of 13 Lion's Choice fast-food restaurants in the St. Louis area.
``I'm a committed, hard-core environmentalist,'' said Morey, who founded the St. Louis-based plastic lumber company in 1991.
``The world's been pretty good to me. My partner and I have done pretty well in the restaurant business. I just decided I would find something where I can give something back,'' he said.
Morey can thank his children for planting the seed that eventually became ERI when they questioned why he was not recycling plastic cups at the restaurants years ago. So Morey spends most of his energy these days at Environmental Recycling's 55,000-square-foot site, not far from the Mississippi River.
Huge boxes of recovered plastics take up most of the space. To one side sits the machinery that forms the operation's core. A couple of large grinders take old high density polyethylene and PET and reduce it to small chips.
Nearby, Jackie Johnson works as manager of recycled materials.
Her job is a physical one—making sure the right mix of plastics is created—and she is working up a sweat on a hot Midwestern day. From her station, the flakes then move to the top of the extrusion line, where they are heated and pushed through various shaped dies to form lumber slats.
A 95-foot-long water bath cools and shapes the material before it finally is cut to length at the end of the line.
Workers on the line and colleagues around the plant would not even be considered by some companies.
ERI has tried employing those who have been unemployable through an agreement with the city.
Maybe one out of every 40 or 50 applicants actually stays at ERI, and those who do typically need extensive training after being out of the work force for so long.
``They didn't know what a time clock was. They didn't know what a break was. They didn't know you had to come to work every day. They didn't know you needed to come to work at the same time every day,'' Morey said.
But some learn, and they become valuable workers. Morey's eyes light up as he talks about his firm's success stories.
He walks the floor shaking hands — a pat on the back here and a joke there. He urges one man to quit smoking.
Morey points out another man in the shipping and receiving area.
``We fired that guy three times to get his attention,'' Morey said.
But he's back working and earning a living.
``If they're willing to work on it, we'll work on it.''
``We're trying to recycle humanity as well as materials,'' said Gary B. Krueger, general manager. ``It's really an unusual business in that regard. We have a very high social conscience.
``I think a lot of the people are on the down side, and many have not held a steady job, and it takes a long time to impress upon them that you just can't take Tuesday off because you want to go fishing.''
Major markets for the plastic lumber include pallets, truck floors and scaffolding, Morey said.
He estimated about 40 companies make plastic lumber around the country, most using molds to create their products. But Morey said his company, which is among those that extrude the lumber, is unique in its approach.
``I extrude it so fast, it comes out a little uneven,'' he said. ``My product is perfect for industrial applications.
``We have some very unique production technology and recipes that make our product relatively inexpensive and extremely strong,'' he said.
A key is adding cellulose to the mix to increase strength, an approach perfected by partner Marv Gibbs. He came to Environmental Recycling after a stint as technology director with Monsanto Co. in St. Louis.
``There's a lot of neat applications that I feel are going to be fun to play with,'' Krueger said.
ERI uses 300,000 pounds of plastic each month, and consumption should increase to 500,000 pounds per month by the end of this year, Morey said.
``Our objective was to take as much plastic out of the waste stream'' as possible, he said.
ERI has been a money-losing operation until just recently, when it climbed over the break-even point, Morey said.
Adding equipment during the next couple of years should help fortify the bottom line.
``If I put a second line in, I don't need twice as many people to run that,'' Morey said.