If you think scrap from bicycle helmets, used motor oil bottles or computer housings can't be recycled, talk to Stephen Suess, owner of Plactory in Santa Cruz, Calif.
``Most of these plastics are landfill-destined and other recyclers would reject them right off the bat because of contaminants,'' he said. ``This is an untapped source of plastic.''
Plactory in 1976 began making plaques, which Suess called a dismal product line. He then moved to making plastic boxes with what looked like pictures embedded in the virgin plastic. In the mid-1980s, Suess and his partner parted ways and he began looking for a product line that complemented his environmental background, which includes a degree in oceanography.
``I wanted to get back to the idealism I'd felt when I was younger,'' he explained.
One of his first projects was working with American Airlines to recycle its cups. However, the airline wanted him to organize recycling at every hub — a task far greater than one man could handle. He had to turn down the project. The next step was experimentation.
``I put a 5-gallon water bottle in [the equipment] and wondered what would come out,'' Suess said.
The variety of products Plactory makes from contaminated plastic is surprising — pink, round pillboxes made from Apple computer housings, license plate frames made from oil bottles, coat hangers from high density polyethylene water bottles and speckled magnetic clips produced from heavily painted PET film.
The company has recycled bus windows, cutlery, electric meter covers, washing machine agitators, electronic cases and packaging to makes rulers, display racks, gift boxes, contact lens cases and key chains.
Plactory grinds, mixes and colors post-industrial and post-consumer plastics, which it receives free, before injection molding the result. About 25 employees operate five injection presses, which have a capacity of 250,000 pounds per year. Products are sold in 120 countries and across the United States.
``Raw materials are cheap, oil is cheap, labor is expensive, so the trend is to automate. Here, we hire more people, spend less on materials and equipment, and process on old machines,'' Suess said.
By being thrifty, the company can afford to hire more people and create jobs.
``It's almost completely backwards for the '90s, but it works out better for us,'' Suess said. ``If a machine breaks down, we need a general mechanic and not a specialist.''
With sales of more than $1 million last year, Plactory would like to team up with a bigger company, raise capital and spend more time on research and development.
``Some company with an environmental interest in business and the will to prove [this type of recycling] can be done would be ideal,'' Suess said. ``We've worked hard for some 10 years now to show that just about any scrap plastic can be made into some kind of suitable product. We work together with the Santa Clara University to establish technical data, and with our customers to design suitable products for a given material, and we do a lot of empirical work playing with materials in our own plant to make sure we can mass-produce quality products.''
Suess, an advocate for a zero-waste society, implemented a take-back program for Plactory's merchandise. In addition, he is a member of the board of directors for the California Resource Recovery Association. Plactory received the CRRA Award for Recycling-based Manufacturing in 1993.