Soaring upward toward 40-foot-high ceilings, huge conveyor belts move recycled plastics to and from state-of-the-art wash areas and automated sorting stations, providing visitors a dramatic view of the new $10 million PET wash-and-sort line at Custom Polymers PET LLC in Athens.
The project illustrates just how much the company has grown in six years.
“We've gone from shipping probably 10 million pounds of recycled PET in 2005 to where we now expect that we will ship 120 million pounds next year,” President Byron Geiger said in an interview prior to a Sept. 12 grand opening ceremony and open house.
The new wash system, custom built by Amut North America, can wash 100 million pounds of material annually, or 9,000 pounds per hour, producing a yield of 70 million pounds of PET flake.
“It's obviously adding a tremendous amount of capacity and revenue for the company,” Geiger said. “It has more than doubled our capacity in Athens.”
With the new wash-and-sort line, Custom Polymers PET now has the capacity to reprocess 175 million pounds of PET annually. It also has capacity to pelletize 30 million pounds of food-grade recycled PET.
The new 50,000-square-foot plant, built behind and connected to the company's existing food-grade PET plant at its corporate headquarters on Wilkinson Street, began operating May 16. Geiger said the firm just added a third shift and will be operating “at full capacity in 45-60 days,” when a fourth shift is added.
That will bring the workforce to 120 — double what it was prior to the expansion.
Custom Polymers PET is owned by parent company, Custom Polymers Inc., based in Charlotte, N.C.
“We've really focused our business on making the best-quality material out there,” which is an increasing challenge, Geiger said, because the curbside PET bales it uses are more contaminated than 15 years ago when he began in the PET recycling business.
“Bottles have changed,” he said. “Shrink-wrap labels on bottles are made from different plastics. Collection has gone to single-stream and there are more automated systems” for processing collected materials.
The end result: More plastics are being collected, but more paper and other contaminants end up in bales, “which gives us a lot of challenges,” Geiger said.
To achieve the quality of flake it needs, the new wash-and-sort line has numerous features designed to separate out contaminants.
“We are building in quality controls because the challenge of turning PET bales into clean flake is harder,” Geiger said. “This is a fully automated line with all the bells and whistles.”
Curbside PET bales are stored outside in a holding area large enough for 15 million pounds of bales — which is equivalent to a six-week supply when the plant is operating at full capacity. The bales are broken up outside before they are moved to a conveyor ramp outside the building.
After the PET bottles are inside the well-lit and extremely clean plant, they are washed to remove dirt and labels before being transported to the sorting systems.
“The material is oven-cured and hot enough to remove the dirt, labels, and the sand,” Geiger said. “That makes it easier to sort and easier on the grinders.”
Equally as important, sorting stations with sensors and air deflection systems separate contaminants — non-PET bottles, non-ferrous and ferrous metals — into their own bins so those materials can be resold, and also so there is greater purity to the recycled PET.
Polypropylene caps, for example, are sold to KW Plastics in Troy, Ala., which uses the material to make paint can lids.
“We have a lot of redundancies built into the system” for quality assurance, Geiger said. “We are sorting certain types of materials multiple times and using different types of methods to look for the same contaminants.”
In addition, the PET is sorted into clear, green and amber colors and washed two more times on its way to becoming a finished product.
Instead of increasing costs, the fail-safe measures built into the wash system — combined with the system's state-of-the-art water-filtration system — actually reduce overall operating costs.
The water-filtration system, for example, enables Custom Polymers PET to use less water, less energy and to reduce the chemicals needed to reprocess the material, said Anthony Georges, president of Amut North America, which is based in Richmond Hill, Ontario. “That gives them a $20 to $30 per-ton cost advantage,” he said.
“The efficiencies of the equipment are getting better and better, and so is the water-filtration system,” Geiger said. “Amut has done a good job of working with us on modifications to get the quality we need. From what we've seen internally and with external customers, we are able to produce a product equivalent to [recycled PET flake] made from deposit material” — which is generally regarded as a cleaner feedstock.
Custom Polymers PET gets 75 percent of its material from within 600 miles of its plant and uses curbside bales instead of deposit bottles because “that is where the volume of materials is in our region,” Geiger said. “We have a lot of years of experience in processing curbside PET.”
Its customers for recycled PET include blow molders that make bottles for PepsiCo; sheet extruders and thermoformers that make cookie trays, deli trays and food containers for products such as strawberries, raspberries and other grocery items; and companies that turn recycled PET into high-end fiber products.
The addition of the new wash-and-sort line — which came 21/2 years after Custom Polymers PET added its food-grade PET operation — could not come at a better time as far as Geiger is concerned.
“We have a lot of customers who want the output from our new line,” Geiger said. “Our expansion helps our ability to work with some of the larger companies who have greater volume demands.
“The demand for a good clean flake is very strong in the bottle market, the sheet market and in the higher-end fiber markets,” he said. “The customer wants a better-quality product to ensure the quality of their finished product because they are using a higher percentage of recycled content.”
Geiger called the sheet market the “fastest-growing segment” of the recycled PET market.
“There is demand for recycled content in that market, and the PET sheet market is growing, in general, because there is very good demand from the general food sector and the general packaging sector,” he said.
Geiger said the company is probably about six months from obtaining a letter of non-objection from the Food and Drug Administration so the flake from the new line can be used for food-grade products.
“The majority of the output will go to processors who will turn it into a food-grade product,” he said. “The demand for that market seems to be growing strongly. The more we work in this market, the more demand we're seeing.”
That was all part of Custom Polymers' plan when it acquired Spenaco Inc. in 2005.
“When we purchased Spenaco, it was pretty much strictly focused on the fiber industry,” Geiger said. “Now, we are focused on the higher-end industries: the bottle market, the sheet market and FDA products.
“We felt that in order to grow, we had to move into those other industries, and now we are obviously one of the largest players [either the second- or third-largest] in the PET recycling industry,” he said.
“This expansion gives us more options as to what our next step is,” Geiger said. “We can add more extrusion capacity, we can put in another wash line for more capacity or we can get into [making] finished products.
“We've discussed a lot of growth plans, but I wouldn't say we've finalized anything,” he said. “What we're trying to weigh is what we feel would add the most value.”
He said the company is open to making an acquisition.
“If an opportunity arose, we'd look at it. But we're not actively pursuing that,” he said. “The market today [for recycled PET] is pretty well-supplied. But some of that is due to other plants not producing to full capacity.”
In addition to the cost advantages from its new wash line, Geiger believes Custom Polymers PET is well-positioned, both financially and with a diverse base of customers.
“We are not so narrowly focused on one industry,” said Geiger.