Perpetual recycling fuels alliance effort

May 22, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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If the price of oil hits the ceiling again like it did last summer, IRT will be sitting pretty.

IRT is Innovative Resin Technologies, a division of Davidson Plyforms Inc. in Grand Rapids which makes plastic parts for medical carts; office, residential and institutional furniture; and other types of products. One of IRT's most important product lines are major parts for fixed seating in auditoriums and theaters.

IRT doesn't use any virgin plastic resin, which is made from petroleum by major corporations such as Dow Chemical. All of IRT production is from waste plastic — post-industrial and post-consumer — collected and processed by Bata Plastics of Byron Center. The post-industrial waste is plastic scrap left over from manufacturing processes.

When oil skyrocketed last summer and gasoline hit $4 a gallon, "we got a lot more interest than we had the previous 18 months," said Davidson Plyforms sales manager Joe Jacques.

Normally, he said, that interest in parts made from recycled plastic wanes somewhat once oil prices start going down again, but sustainability is a growing issue now in corporate America, so the partnership of IRT and Bata Plastics is good publicity — the epitome of sustainability.

Over the past three years, IRT has gained competitive strength through an ability to use all kinds of waste plastics. Its partnership with Bata as its raw materials supplier has also added strength because Bata has an on-staff chemist and the ability to deliver to IRT the precise mix of recycled polymers a given production order requires.

"In the past, part of the waste stream collected from Bata's customers was unable to be re-used because there was no established outlet for it in the manufacturing sector," said W. Lee Hammond, president of Bata Plastics.

He added that IRT's "unique blending process" of scrap plastics creates "more product uses for all types of recycled plastics," which helps Bata use virtually the total plastics waste stream in West Michigan while providing lower-cost material to manufacturers that make things out of plastic.

Led by engineer Andy Johnson, IRT developed a blending process that created more uses for many types of post-industrial and post-consumer recycled plastic. Its recycled mixture, which the company calls ReTek, is used in a non-liquid compression molding process that requires less investment in tooling than an injection molding process.

Johnson said ReTek comes in three grades, with different characteristics pertaining to flexibility, strength for structural supporting and ability to be painted.

"We have very demanding engineered requirements" on the parts they make, said Jacques, and the material being used to make it is "coming from all 100 percent recycled plastics. When the recycle stream changes somewhat  — as it will, because of the availability of different plastics — even though the material changes in the mix, we can still guarantee the same engineered product coming off our molds, part after part after part," added Jacques.

According to Jacques, Johnson "put his heart and soul into the business" of improving the use of recycled plastic, including time spent in Italy studying an extruded process used by manufacturers there.

IRT had a small plant in Walker since 2005 but moved from that location in March back to the Davidson Plyforms complex in southeast Grand Rapids, when space opened up there.

Johnson, who is IRT's product development manager, said IRT just added a second shift and increased employment from about nine to 11. The company currently has about nine industrial customers, about half of them in West Michigan, and plans to use about four million pounds of plastic in 2009.  He estimates it used about 1.5 million pounds last year.

"We definitely can compete with the injection molding of virgin (plastics)," said Jacques. "We offer solutions that are competitive as far as piece part pricing."

IRT has worked with Bata for a couple of years but stepped up that involvement in the past year. Jacques said they decided to partner with Bata so that it could focus more on production and less on the critical mixing of the ground recycled plastics.

"We used to do our own blending and mixes and creating our own formulations," he said.

Now Bata will "take over the mixing and blending. We're going to be purchasing the ground material from them. It really makes sense to be in alliance with someone whose core business is staying on top of that raw material stream, and their ability to bring an in-house chemist in" to create specific mixes of plastics for different product requirements.

The involvement of Bata will "open this up to a much broader range of industries and products," said Jacques.

The partnership with Bata establishes a closed loop process, because all of IRT's plastic scrap left over from its production processes goes back to Bata, which grinds it again and returns it to IRT.

Bata Plastics is the largest industrial plastics recycler in West Michigan and one of the largest in the state. It buys surplus plastic parts and plastic scrap from manufacturing companies and scrap dealers, grinds it and sells it back to manufacturers in a form they can use. It even buys the scrap plastic from the Ferris State University plastics engineering production classroom, and also collects consumer plastic waste from schools.

With IRT using more than a million pounds of scrap plastic a year that otherwise would probably end up in a landfill, it is building a strong name among industrial companies that are choosing to go "green" and give preferential treatment to "green" suppliers.

Compared to plastic that once was used and then buried in a landfill, plastics used by IRT go from "the cradle to the grave and then back to the cradle again," said Jacques.

"IRT has the reputation as a company committed to protecting the environment through cost-effective solutions. I am pleased that this alliance with Bata Plastics strengthens our supply chain resource and allows IRT to really focus on doing what they do best; developing a broad range of products to meet the needs of the marketplace," said John Walton, president of Davidson Plyforms.

Davidson Plyforms is a subsidiary of Leggett & Platt, a diversified manufacturer based in Missouri with a total of 29 business units, 33,000 employees and more than 300 facilities in 20 countries.

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