Henry Sullivan calls his plastic composite railroad tie ``an environmentally positive cradle-to-cradle product,'' a label that many companies would like to use for their products today, given the focus on sustainability and environmental impact.
But the 67-year-old Sullivan - founder, chief strategist and chief scientist at TieTek LLC in Marshall, Texas - is proof that creating sustainable products that reduce environmental impact doesn't happen overnight.
His 14-year-old company has 700,000 ties in place today, made from recycled high density polyethylene and recycled tires. But annual production just recently hit 300,000 ties, and the company didn't have its own factory until 2000. TieTek is the wholly owned subsidiary and only business of North American Technologies Group Inc., also in Marshall.
Sullivan's company was one of eight that received environmental awards from the Plastics Environmental Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers at the Global Plastics Environmental Conference in Orlando. Sullivan had some advice to others trying to create products with a better environmental footprint: find patient investors, and remember that the product must perform within the existing system - only better than the product you are trying to replace.
``Railroads have 100-man crews and 22 pieces of equipment they use to replace ties,'' said Sullivan. ``They weren't about to change anything for us. If you don't have patient strategic investors, you can't do something like this.''
The annual production of TieTek composite railroad ties uses 50-60 million pounds of HPDE, and rubber from 1 million recycled tires. Use of the ties preserves 75,000 mature hardwood trees annually, conserves 1 trillion BTUs of energy, and eliminates the need to use creosote, which can be carcinogenic, said Sullivan. They cost twice as much as a hardwood railroad tie.
Working within existing parameters also is what Lear Corp. and Ford Motor Co. - which won the SPE award for the use of plastic materials from renewable sources - had to do in developing a flexible polyurethane foam from soybean oil to replace a polyol foam.
``This research project began six years ago,'' said Cynthia Flanigan, a technical specialist with Ford's Materials Research and Advanced Engineering Department.
In addition to the standard performance issues that had to be achieved, Flanigan said the two companies ``found that we had to develop different formulations for each different application. We also had to develop a new method of synthesis to reduce the associated odor of soy, and make sure we didn't increase cycle time'' in manufacturing.
According to a Ford/Lear life-cycle analysis, the use of the soybean-based foam product on seat backs and seat cushions of 2008 Ford Mustangs reduces carbon-dioxide emissions by 605,000 pounds annually, based on the replacement of 110,000 pounds of petroleum oil with soybean oil.
Brookfield, Conn.-based SPE also recognized three companies for creating closed-loop recycling systems, one for the use of recycled content, another for using a waste product to create a nonchlorinated carpet backing and another for creating an recyclable film alternative to chrome plating on vehicles.
The closed-loop winners:
* Interface Inc. of Atlanta for creating the industry's first completely closed-loop carpet-recycling system to turn recycled nylon 6/6 fiber back into new carpet fiber. Interface estimates that it will process 30 million pounds of carpet fiber annually on its first machine, which began operations last September. Interface has plans to install up to 20 machines across the United States during the next five years. The technology separates carpet face fiber from backing in a way that preserves the materials in a form suitable for recycling. It was developed by Post Consumer Carpet Processing Technologies in Capalle, Italy.
* Nextek Pty. Ltd. of Sydney, Australia, was recognized for its closed-loop recycling technology that enables the recycling of HDPE milk bottles back into food-grade milk bottles. In June, Dagenham, England-based Closed Loop Recycling Ltd. will open the first plant, in Dagenham, to use the Nextek technology.
* Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., for developing a process that allows them to make inkjet cartridges with 70-100 percent recycled content, using glass-filled PET from returned cartridges and PET bottle flakes. After pilot projects the previous four years, HP said that it used more than 5 million pounds of recycled plastics in its inkjet cartridges in 2007, and expects to use twice that amount in 2008. HP said it has made more than 200 million cartridges with recycled PET to date.
The other winners:
* Tandus US Inc. of Dalton, Ga., for its 4-year-old Ethos nonchlorinated carpet backing that has 76 percent recycled content. It is made from polyvinyl butyral film recovered from recycled automotive windshields. PVB is an adhesive used in the windshield-manufacturing process.
* Injection molder Cascade Engineering Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., for its EcoCart solid-waste and recycling containers that debuted in 2007. The EcoCart uses 30-50 percent post-consumer resin that is layered between two layers of virgin HDPE.
* Soliant LLC of Lancaster, S.C., for its Fluorex bright film that can be used for chrome plating, eliminating the need to use plating chemicals and processes.