Recycler St. Jude Polymer Corp. is finishing an expansion that will increase its sorting capacity significantly. The project will let the company tap into a new stream of plastic coming from a program to boost recycling in rural areas in Pennsylvania.
St. Jude, which processes PET and high density polyethylene at its Frackville, Pa., headquarters, is spending more than $1.5 million to automate and boost sorting capacity to 40 million pounds a year.
The expansion is tied closely to the state's effort to stimulate recycling in rural areas. The state is supplying compactor trucks that collect materials from drop-off locations in rural places - where it is often harder to sustain recycling economically - and deliver the plastic to St. Jude.
St. Jude's new equipment will efficiently sort the mix of PET and HDPE that will come from the rural drop-off sites, said President Steve Babinchak.
While the tight market for recycled material is pushing prices up, it still can be tough for rural areas to gather enough material to make recycling economical. Large buyers often want plastic that is sorted and delivered in much larger quantities than the 4,000-pound truckloads that come from the rural counties, Babinchak said.
Pennsylvania found that having the trucks compact the plastic, and having well-designed, attractive drop-off sites, improved the economics, said Carl Hursh, chief of recycling and waste reduction for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Right now, seven counties are participating, but Babinchak said that number should grow to include 15 or 20 more in a few years, now that the system has proved workable. The effort started in the late 1990s, but was delayed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when state government resources focused on security issues, Babinchak said.
St. Jude is expanding its Frackville headquarters by 14,000 square feet, giving it 100,000 square feet, and is using a low-interest loan from the state for the nearly $1 million it needs to automate and quadruple its sorting capacity, said Vice President Frank Petrachonis. The state also gave St. Jude a $235,000 grant to pay for improvements.
The new system optically sorts bottles by color, then separates PET from HDPE. Although the system is automated, the company reassigned employees and did not have any layoffs, Petrachonis said.
Since communities do not separate PET and HDPE, St. Jude is able to buy the raw materials for less, Babinchak said.
St. Jude makes slip sheets from HDPE and produces solid-state PET pellets.
The firm, which started in 1977, was one of the first companies to recycle PET bottles, when the material was being introduced to the soft drink market, Babinchak said. He and Petrachonis, who also started the firm, had backgrounds in recycling vinyl.
Babinchak said it was uncharted territory. The company built a lot of its own equipment at the time, and adopted the name St. Jude after the patron saint of hopeless causes, because it was very difficult to convince bankers that recycling plastic bottles had a future, Babinchak said.