With revenues twice as high as most other large plastics recyclers, Arthur Ferguson, general manager of the Recycling Division of KW Plastics, isn't about to give anyone too much insight into what keeps the Troy, Ala., company at the top of Plastics News' ranking of U.S. recyclers.
But he will wax enthusiastically about how its volume has allowed the operation to be successful, about the company's willingness to invest in new equipment, and, one advantage that is no secret to anyone in the industry, its truck line.
``Everyone doesn't have a sister company that is a trucking company like we do,'' Ferguson said, referring to Wiley Sanders Truck Lines Inc., which is owned by one of the company's two partners. ``We always have a truck available to pick up scrap. With 700 trucks and 1,100 trailers, we have the ability to bring products in and take products back out.''
``They can get scrap and transport it at a better price than others,'' said Marty Kennedy, executive vice president of Vecoplan LLC, a shredder manufacturer in High Point, N.C., that has sold equipment to KW Plastics.
But, if all it took to achieve recycling success was a truck line, everyone would buy a truck line.
KW's advantage, according to sources in the industry, is its equipment, its low-cost structure and its automated, continuous process that keeps manpower needs to a minimum. It has the capacity to process 500 million pounds of scrap annually, about equally divided between polypropylene and high density polyethylene.
``There are no human hands touching their products once the forklift dumps the recycled plastic bales on the conveyors that feed the shredders,'' said one recycling executive. ``They don't have human sorters, and they use a continuous process when many others use a batch process.''
KW also has a penchant for buying new equipment, using old equipment for parts and buying and building bigger equipment and recycling lines, according to recycling executives, suppliers and customers. Some of their sorting trummels are 18 feet in diameter - three times the industry standard.
According to Ferguson, KW prefers larger recycling lines instead of smaller ones ``because of the efficiency of the operation. You can run more product on a larger line in the same number of hours'' and without any additional manpower. ``It takes the same number of people'' to run a smaller line as it does a large line. ``Volume has allowed us to be successful'' and keep our costs down.
KW has four shredders, six granulators, three wash lines and nine extrusion lines, according to Ferguson. The company can feed anywhere from 4-6½ cubic yards of material into its largest shredder. Its extrusion lines can process as much as 20,000 pounds of plastic per hour.
KW also modifies most of its equipment and is an expert at identifying and eliminating production bottlenecks. In particular, the company's use of multiple washes on a line creates the net effect of a faster wash line as it eliminates wait time. In addition, KW sends a lot of the plastic to be recycled through a double cycle of wet grinding and wet shredding, adding water to the mix to help loosen contaminants, such as glass and grit, according to one recycling executive.
Investments in new technology also contribute to greater efficiency and profitability, Ferguson said.
An example of that is the new 62-inch by 80-inch RG62XL rotary shredder with the HiTorc electromagnetic motor drive system KW purchased from Vecoplan six months ago. The unit has no belts, gearbox or drive components that can break down.
``It uses less power. It's amazingly strong and has more torque than a conventional machine,'' Ferguson said.
``It eats through tough plastic and does it quicker,'' he said. ``It raises the level of torque you are putting into the machine, and it is able to change and adapt torque to continue to run the line at the same speed. You can't overload it because it adjusts torque as much as 300 percent. Vecoplan estimates energy consumption is one-fifth that of a conventional shredder.
Investment, whether for new equipment or in new businesses, is typical of the attitude of Kenny Campbell and Wiley Sanders, the co-owners of KW Plastics, said Ken Reed, who joined the 25-year-old company three years ago as director of manufacturing for KW Container. That unit makes plastic paint cans from recycled polypropylene.
In 1981, KW began recycling the polypropylene battery housings that might otherwise have been waste material, as it had a large lead-smelting operation, derived from recycling batteries. With a dominant 75 percent share of the battery-case market, it added HDPE recycling in 1993 to grow the business, and, 10 years later, KW began making hybrid plastic paint cans out of recycled PP, to create a higher-value product.
``They see things with good potential and are willing to take on the risk of the investment to make the potential materialize,'' Reed said.
Reed's division is an example of that, first with the hybrid plastic paint can it developed, with a plastic body but metal ring and plug (lid), and now with the all-plastic paint can - four years in the development - which has just completed all its testing, according to Reed.
``We began beta testing it in small quantities one year ago,'' he said. ``Our intent and desire would be to go to an all-plastic can because you can rinse it, recycle it, and it can come back to us, be reground, generate a perfect feedstock and be made into a can.''
Reed said the cans, which will be built on equipment ``totally custom-built for them,'' will be produced first in the company's Troy plant. He said starting full production was imminent. Once that plant is 50 percent booked, he said KW Plastics will ramp up production at one of its four other plastic paint can plants in Chicago Heights, Ill.; Allentown, Pa.; McDonough, Ga., and Bakersfield, Calif.
The newest of the 32 injection molding machines at the five plants are 550-ton machines, each with six- to eight-cavity tools inside.
Reed said KW has been making production quantities for a year and that Thompson's Co., based in Dallas, has purchased ``several hundred thousand units'' for its Water Seal products, which include exterior wood cleaners, paints, primers and water sealants.
``This is exactly what they have done in all of their businesses,'' Reed said. ``Our attitude is: Good is the enemy of greatness. Good is not acceptable. We want to be great.''