DALLAS — A green message will get you in the door, but ultimately that sustainability message has to be backed up with quality at the right price.
Mark Lienhart lives with this reality every day as director of operations for Wellman Engineering Resins, a large carpet recycler on the East Coast.
It's part of Lienhart's job to oversee a network of a dozen used carpet collection locations that feed the company's recycling facility in Johnsonville, S.C.
Wellman has a compelling sustainability story to offer potential customers, transforming 200 million pounds of used carpet each year into nylon and polypropylene resin that compete against their virgin material counterparts.
Wellman markets its resins to the automotive market and also serves the lawn and garden, consumer product and electronics industries.
“You get your foot in the door selling those green products, and everybody says yes, they want to buy those. But to actually convert that opportunity into a sale, you've got to deliver a quality product that can stand up against the virgin materials,” Lienhart said at the Plastics Recycling 2015 conference in Dallas.
“And the way you can actually get that converted [to a sale] is to deliver a cost savings,” he said.
Supply chains, he said, are under great pressure to reduce costs. “It's going to be tough to get in there unless you deliver a pretty significant cost savings,” he said, because there's an added need for the buyer to go through the testing and approval process to switch to a recycled-based resin.
“It's not as easy as flipping a switch,” he said. “There's a lot of activation energy required to actually get your product in if it hasn't already been approved.”
In the automotive business, Lienhart said, Wellman has to convince both the vehicle manufacturers as well as their suppliers.
“It's a delicate balance of selling that green sale and also making sure we deliver that cost savings,” he said.
Wellman's chief business is recycling nylon carpeting into resin, but there is a portion of its business also devoted to polypropylene recycling as well. And the company has been required to handle an increasing amount of PET-based carpeting in recent years.
PET carpeting, less expensive than nylon carpeting, became more popular when the recession hit in 2008 and families looked for ways to stretch their cash.
That carpeting is now being replaced with more regularity, but Wellman said it does not hold the same value as nylon or PP.
That's because PET carpet fibers require more extensive and expensive processing than their PET bottle cousins, which come from a cleaner recycling stream.
While the company does recycle some PET carpeting, other markets for the material include use in cement kilns and waste-to-energy.
Lienhart estimated about 35 percent of the carpeting the company collects these days is made from PET, and he expects that number to get even higher before it peaks. That's because there's plenty of PET carpeting still on floors that has yet to be replaced.
Nylon, thanks to lower oil prices and the improving economy, is gaining back market share from PET, but that carpeting will take years to be replaced and end up at Wellman, Lienhart explained.
Wellman Engineering Resins will exhibit at NPE 2015 (Booth S10054). The company is a unit of Wellman Plastics Recycling LLC, which is owned by Shanghai Pret Composites Co. Ltd.