Basing business decisions on what's good for the environment not only resonates with eco-minded consumers but has lowered manufacturing costs for Trex Co. Inc., the world's largest producer of composite decking.
The Winchester, Va.-based extruder of deck boards made from 95 percent recycled material — discarded polyethylene plastic bags and reclaimed sawdust — released its first sustainability report Jan. 14 to show its consideration for the triple-bottom line of planet, people and profits.
Trex's business model uses PE shopping bags, bread bags and product overwraps, which keeps them out of landfills; spares trees the ax; then uses a proprietary processing method that limits greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use, and the risk of carbon pricing, which is a tax or charge to emit carbon dioxide that is gaining traction, the company said.
The result is a high-performance, long-lasting, low-maintenance composite decking product that has made Trex a top brand and the company one of the largest scrap film polyethylene recyclers in North America. About 140,000 recycled bags and wraps go into a 500-square-foot Trex deck.
"With this inaugural sustainability report, we wish to communicate our positive contributions to the environment and the communities we serve. Not just because they appeal to consumers looking for more environmentally desirable products, but also because they lower our cost to manufacture products that are longer lasting, lower maintenance and more aesthetically pleasing," President and CEO Jim Cline says in the introduction of the 13-page report.
Trex decks are produced in Winchester, Va., and Fernely, Nev., where about 500 million pounds of PE and wood fiber are recycled and repurposed in closed-loop systems that reuse water, saving 160 million gallons annually. The production process also uses vegetable oil instead of petroleum-based fluids in some hydraulic systems to reduce the company's environmental footprint.
With net sales of $565 million in 2017, Trex ranks sixth among North American pipe, profile and tubing extruders, according to Plastics News' latest ranking. The company is on track to beat those sales when 2018 figures are finalized. For the first nine months of 2018, net sales hit $544 million, up 23 percent from the $443 million reported for the same period in 2017.
In October, Trex officials said production line improvements would increase throughput at its Winchester facility by more than 20 percent in 2019. At that point, the company had spent $13 million on general plant cost-reduction initiatives and production improvements for 2018. Few details were given about the capital spending but the sustainability report offers some examples of the benefits.
"We use many proprietary and skill-based advantages in our manufacturing process, and we have made substantial investments in manufacturing process improvements that have enabled us to increase manufacturing line production rates, facilitate development of new products, and produce improvements in our existing products' dimensional consistency, surface texture and color uniformity," the report says.
To that end, Trex is expected to unveil a second-generation decking called Transcend 2.0 that will replace the more monochromatic first version yet sell at the same price.
Trex continues to go after wood decking, which dominates the market and accounts for about 84 percent of residential sales. The company promotes its products as offering the beauty of wood without the maintenance.
In its first sustainability report, Trex recaps findings from a 2016 life-cycle analysis that compares its products to pressure-treated lumber over a 25-year period. The analysis indicates Trex's lifecycle impacts result in 36 percent fewer GHG emissions, 47 percent fewer air pollutants, 84 percent less acidification, 53 percent less smog, and 93 percent less ecological toxicity.
The report also points to energy-saving initiatives at Trex plants, such as variable-speed equipment, heat exchangers to reuse heat, and new lighting systems controlled by motion sensors.
For 2019, Trex plans to complete a water conservation project at its plant in Virginia, use GPS systems to optimize warehouse operations and shift more shipping from trucks to rail. Rail shipping currently makes up only 2 percent of transportation needs even though a rail car can hold 250,000 pounds of product compared to about 40,000 pounds for the trucks.
A longer-term initiative for Trex is to support programs to collect and recycle or reuse its decking, which currently is bound for the dump when the buyer is done with it.
"Trex is not aware of any landfill diversion programs or product material recovery programs in place for Trex products," the report says. "A lack of efficient collection processes prevents used Trex ... products from being recycled at the end of their lifespan. As composite use becomes more widespread and collection programs are developed, Trex will make all efforts to advance these programs."