DETROIT — The typical new car headed out to the open road leaves behind up to 12 pounds of paint sludge at the factory.
Now a new company is out to recycle that sludge and put it right alongside those cars on the road, as guardrail blocks.
National Recycled Plastics LLC opened in late 2000 with a $12 million investment and plans to hit more than $5 million in sales this year by collecting, drying and recycling leftover automotive paint. The Detroit company already has started shipping its extruded blocks to Ohio and Georgia and has won approval to sell the blocks to more than two dozen other states and the federal government.
"Every state in the union buys several thousands of these [blocks] every year, every year, every year," Mike Thomason, a partner in the venture, said during a Jan. 3 interview at NRP. "We've just started opening the doors for sales."
Thomason created the process and teamed up with the operators of environmental cleaning company Vac-All Service Inc. of Taylor, Mich., to form NRP.
The partners estimate they can top $20 million in sales within a few years and employ about 60 people by the end of 2001.
This is not Thomason's first foray into the environmental aspects of painting. His previous ventures created incinerators and filtering systems used to clean the air that circulated through paint booths.
Vac-All, meanwhile, specialized in cleaning and hauling a variety of materials from manufacturing sites.
About 40 percent of the paint sprayed at any auto facility — either an automakers' assembly plant or a booth for a supplier providing painted body panels — goes down the drain, Thomason said. A typical auto plant has about 1,500 tons of paint sludge per year.
The bulk of that sludge ends up at landfills. It is difficult to do anything with it because there is no way to predict the range of colors or mix of acrylic and urethane-based paints going into the collection pit, he said.
As a result, neither recyclers nor molders can use the material.
"It's a huge problem, a tremendous problem of what to do with all this sludge," he said. "Dumping it in a landfill is a crime against humanity, in our opinion."
For the same price that automakers and suppliers would have to pay to truck the sludge to a waste site, NRP will take the paint and recycle it, using six dryers and Thomason's air filtration system to separate out the water, leaving just the acrylic and urethane base.
"It has polymeric properties," he said. "We can use it, but we're never going to make anything sweet out of it."
NRP also accepts a variety of post-industrial and post-consumer plastics, which the company grinds up to add to the dried paint, then it extrudes the combination into guardrail blocks.
The company is seeking contracts to use the mixture in railroad ties and other markets.
"The plastic lumber industry has tremendous opportunities for us," said Ken Viau, NRP president.
The Detroit business is not alone in seeking ways to get sludge out of the waste stream. Haden Environmental Corp. of Auburn Hills, Mich., developed a system that dries and refines paint sludge from a DaimlerChrysler AG facility.
Romeo, Mich.-based L&L Products Inc. uses the dried sludge powder as a replacement for calcium carbonate in ethylene floor-pan plugs headed back to DaimlerChrysler for use in new vehicles.
The companies already have recycled nearly 100 million pounds of sludge, said Haden Vice President Okey Lemasters, turning it into 13 million pounds of powder.
"We've got a lot of other opportunities we're looking at," Lemasters said.