OLD SAYBROOK, CONN. -- Infiltrator Systems Inc. is an expert at elimination.
The Old Saybrook company makes products for wastewater systems — septic tanks, chambers and pipes — from plastics destined for the waste stream.
Through its subsidiary, Champion Polymer Recycling, Infiltrator said it is the fifth-largest user of post-industrial recycled plastic in the United States and uses about 150 million pounds of post-industrial and post-consumer recycled polymers annually.
Recycled material represents 85-90 percent of the company's total resin usage, according to Dave Smith, purchasing manager at Champion Polymer.
The Society of Plastics Engineers Environmental Division recently honored the company's large-scale recycling operation. Infiltrator snagged the Chairman's Award in the organization's 2013 Environmental Stewardship Awards, announced March 21 at the Global Plastics Environmental Conference in New Orleans.
It may sound like a lofty message of sustainability, but Infiltrator's use of recycled material is more down to earth: It's less expensive than virgin resin but offers the same, or better, performance, the company said.
In the right context with the right design and right engineering, recycled materials are totally suitable for Infiltrator's parts; buying recycled makes more sense than buying expensive virgin resin, Smith said in a phone interview. "And it's good business, being able to buy things and put them back into the environment," he added.
"We're taking a sustainable approach … septic and leach field is the ultimate form of recycling, right?" he quipped.
Champion buys mostly post-industrial polypropylene and polyethylene scrap from sources as varied as plastic bumpers, carpet scrap and parts of chicken coops. At its Winchester, Ky., plant, the company processes its own regrind, though Smith noted that it does buy some pre-ground materials.
Before reprocessing, Champion's in-house lab thoroughly analyzes the material for suitability, strength and other properties, and screens it to detect contaminants and fillers. Working with recycled materials means working with mixed batches — from top to bottom, in one silo, the material can be different — "you need to be careful and astute in how you use it, and give yourself flexibility," Smith said.
The company spends a lot of time making sure the materials will meet performance requirements, and engineering parts that are structurally sound and won't fail in the field. "Nobody wants their septic system to back up into their home or have to clean up their backyard," Smith said. "It's not a lot of fun."
Infiltrator's parts are lifted, thrown in trucks and hauled around before installation, and after being installed, have to meet other long-term requirements. It takes a lot of science to design and engineer parts made from the right material, he said.
"You can't just say 'I'll buy milk jugs and grind them up and see if they work.' It doesn't work that way," he said.
Because its parts aren't typically visible to the naked eye, Infiltrator can get away with color variations that won't affect performance. The exception is the cap on the top of tanks, which are green to blend in with the surrounding grass and designed so they won't fade or crack from exposure. While the majority of parts consist of almost entirely recycled material — leach-field chambers are nearly 100 percent recycled material and tanks about 80 percent — the caps are made of virgin resin.
"You have to think of both the short term and the long term of the product and make sure it makes sense," Smith said. "Sometimes that's using recycled material, sometimes it isn't."
The company is always striving to use materials and make products better.
And being a relatively small operation — Infiltrator has about 400 employees across its two locations in Old Saybrook and Winchester — gives employees a chance to voice ideas and to try them out, Smith said.
Almost all of Infiltrator's products came from someone asking "what if?" he said. The company's new line of injection molded tanks — a 540-gallon pump tank and a 1,500-gallon septic tank — are no exception.
According to Infiltrator, the PP tanks are made of two pieces that allow them to be nested while shipping and clipped together prior to installation. The tanks are lightweight, watertight and durable, and made specifically for septic applications. They also have a variety of installation options, including shallow installations and multiple- and serial-tank configurations.
The pump tank should be available later this year and the septic tank in 2015.
The injection molded tanks will replace Infiltrator's current line of rotational molded tanks, which were great but took up significantly more space during storing and shipping, Smith said.
"If you can do that and make a product that meets the same performance requirements, why wouldn't you?" he said.
"That's the kind of innovative spirit this company has. We had a product on the market, but why not make it differently and better?"