“This is just the beginning,” says Tamsin Ettefagh, smiling as she walks through Envision Plastics' recycling plant in Reidsville, where the company is installing more wash capacity to meet demand for its EcoPrime food-grade recycled resin.
“That's an untapped market,” says Ettefagh, who is Envision's vice president. “Not a week goes by without us doing some sampling for people. That's the No. 1 reason for our expansion — to meet the demand for food-grade HDPE recycled resin. Last year was our most profitable year. We are having a hard time keeping up with demand.”
But Envision's capabilities to do that should improve later this summer.
In mid-June, the company will take delivery on a $3.5 million wash line that will be up and running in the 80,000-square-foot Reidsville plant by July 30, if not before, she said. The firm declined to name the manufacturer.
The new wash line — Envision's third in Reidsville — will give the firm wash capacity of roughly 90 million pounds at that site. “We have built up a huge amount of inventory of regrind and bales to be ready for the increased capacity,” Ettefagh said. “We have enough of a buffer to run it now.”
Meanwhile, Envision has nearly doubled annual capacity for EcoPrime food-grade pellets in less than 18 months to 23.2 million pounds. The firm also is adding its first food-grade production at a 40,000-square-foot plant in Chino, Calif., with that 20.2 million-pound capacity for EcoPrime resin scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter of 2011.
“We will start to install the wash line in Chino in August, and begin extruding pellets there in the latter part of this year,” said Ettefagh. “At that point Envision will have the ability to better supply EcoPrime to its national and international customer base. We have kept them with their material needs so far, but not as much as they want.”
Envision's chief operating officer, Scott Booth said the firm has been tweaking capacity at Reidsville over the past year. “It was 12 million pounds at the beginning of last year and in the fourth quarter was easily up to 18 million pounds,” Booth said.
“Right now we can easily surpass 20 million pounds” in Reidsville, Ettefagh said. “We have learned so much in the last 12 months that I don't think anyone can catch up with us fast.”
EcoPrime — made from natural-colored containers such as for milk — is the only recycled high density polyethylene in the U.S. cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for use in most food and beverage packaging. It is currently used for packaging nutritional products, vitamin supplements, juices, food-storage containers, and personal-care items like lotions and shampoos, Ettefagh said. But its applications are growing and changing. “EcoPrime will be incorporated into dairy products and milk bottle packaging this year,” she said.
The ongoing, $7 million expansion at Reidsville, Chino and sister company Ecoplast Corp. in Fontana, Calif., is changing the company's complexion.
In Reidsville, the expansion includes the wash line, another shredder, a fourth extruder, ancillary equipment and a recently built air-conditioned clean room where food-grade pellets are loaded into boxes for shipping. “We don't want moisture condensation on the resins,” said Ettefagh.
In addition to adding EcoPrime production at Chino, Envision is boosting wash capacity there from 36 million pounds a year to 48 million pounds per year — or by 4 million pounds a month.
Also in California, sister Ecoplast moved from a 45,000-square-foot building in Pomona into a 125,000-square-foot building in Fontana and expanded shredding, grinding and extrusion capacity. Ecoplast grinds, custom formulates, and extrudes industrial scrap; custom compounds scrap and prime resins, mainly for the durable goods industries; and grinds post-consumer polypropylene from a hanger collection program and broken plastic recycling carts.
Ecoplast is using just 80,000 square feet of the Fontana facility, which it shares with another firm. But it plans to expand its operation when that tenant moves out, sometime after year-end 2012.
Envision's new wash line in Reidsville “will have 30 percent more throughput and make cleaner flake,” and output will be 7,500 pounds per hour, compared with 6,000 pounds/hour and 4,000 pounds/hour of the plant's two existing lines, according to Ettefagh.
“It is a lot more efficient and uses about 30 percent less energy and less water as the material goes through a series of wash tanks,” she said. “It recycles water within the system, so we get multiple washes from the same water.”
That focus on efficiency, every detail of the operation, and its willingness to adapt equipment used in other industries — mining, agriculture and the food industry — for use in recycling has led to huge savings, both for Envision and its customers. It also has earned Envision a reputation for quality that has enabled the company to grow from producing 20 million pounds of resin shortly after the company was formed in 2001 to 112 million last year and an expected 144 million in 2011.
Proprietary high-speed sorters in Reidsville, for example, can recognize 40 million colors and sort recycled plastic flake at a rate of more than 1 million flakes per minute.
That's critical because Envision's Prisma resins, created by its proprietary color-sorting process, are blended by its customers with virgin resins, saving them money — since container makers typically can reduce colorant costs by upping the percentage of recycled resin used.
“One customer cut their colorant costs by 50 percent less than 30 days after they started using our recycled resin,” Ettefagh said.
That's just one of the unique things about Envision's operation.
For example, one of two trommels in the Reidsville plant is adapted from the mining industry because it loosens the flattened containers and bottles more efficiently, and spins and knocks the caps off of them.
The firm also vacuums moisture from flake. “We don't run cooling towers” to dry flakes like other plastics recyclers, Ettefagh said. And it uses hot water from its extruders as wash water. “Most people heat up their wash water and cool down the water from their extruders,” she said. “We take the hot water from our extruders, increase its temperature in a heat exchanger and then transport it to our washing units. That is a huge energy savings.”
Envision also recently added equipment to recover 3,000 pounds of small particles, removed by water, that previously went to landfills. All the company's extruders are vacuum-vented “to get moisture off” and have “automated screen changers” to filter out pieces as small as one-hundredth of a micron, Ettefagh said. “We want to keep volatile organic compounds from building up on the outer part of the die,” she said.
Yet-another piece of equipment pulls out “glass and grit” to prevent wear-and-tear, or even worse damage, to grinders. Still another — which includes an automatic pump system to add soap to wash systems to loosen adhesives and labels — sucks up nearly 99 percent of the labels so Envision doesn't lose good material.
“Between the food industry and the agricultural industry and the mining industry, we have put together a good system,” Ettefagh said.
Indeed, its EcoPrime HDPE recycled resin has an unmatched contamination level of far less than 320 parts per billion.
To maintain high quality and ensure proper color matches for its non-food-grade recycled resins used in liquid laundry bottles, household cleaners, hair-care and skin-care products, quality-control inspectors visually inspect each box of finished material for color defects.
Envision also takes samples hourly from each extrusion line to check for color and melt flow and keeps those samples for a month. The company also keeps samples of resin made and shipped to its customers for 18 months.