Expanded recycling catches on in manufacturing sector

Forget about the image of a granola-chomping Earth child hauling recyclables to the curb or the nearest drop-off–the recycling movement is increasingly going corporate.

In manufacturing and industrial-heavy central Indiana, companies are beginning to realize that "going green" can translate into another kind of green–money.

Reaching far beyond the recycling mainstays of glass, paper and metal, markets are developing for a variety of materials, from tiny bits of processed rubber to leftover cornstarch.

In Indiana, a state where "green" usually refers to corn and soybean fields, manufacturers are slowly catching on to the benefits of embracing the "reduce-reuse-recycle" mantra of recycling advocates, said Melissa Kriegerfox, president of the Bloomington-based Indiana Recycling Council.

"This is partially due to the economic incentives to recycle and the practical understanding that waste equals wasted money," she said.

"Less waste also means more efficient manufacturing processes," said Kriegerfox, who's also recycling and reuse manager of the Monroe County Solid Waste Management District.

In Monroe County, Kriegerfox works with several manufacturers, including Cook Inc. and Baxter Pharmaceuticals, to reuse and recycle various materials.

Tax breaks are available for some recyclable materials, Kriegerfox said, but in other cases, companies find their trash is someone else's treasure.

As raw material costs rise, manufacturers are finding other companies will pick up for free or even pay for byproducts they used to pay to have hauled off.

The cost savings can be dramatic. In Indianapolis, National Starch and Chemical Co. expects to save at least $500,000 on annual trash-hauling expenses from a recycling program it launched last year at one of its two starch-processing plants southwest of downtown.

The plants, which crank out 2-1/2 million pounds of food-grade cornstarch a day, used to regularly fill five truck-size trash bins headed to the landfill. Much of it was starch that wouldn't meet customer standards–it would make pudding gritty instead of smooth, for example.

Now, those have been replaced by three 8-foot covered bins that are rarely filled, said Rich Catron, National Starch's local recycling coordinator.

National Starch launched its program after Catron, then a union line worker, dropped a note in a company suggestion box advocating that it find ways to be more environmentally friendly.

Skeptical at first, plant managers tapped Catron to get the program running. After crunching numbers, they quickly jumped on board.

Now, instead of throwing out starch it can't use, it sends it to ReConserve Inc., a Terre Haute processor that makes feed for southern Indiana's turkey farms.

Catron also found a home for the hundreds of plastic-lined cardboard starch boxes the plant threw away each month. Those are now used in Sullivan County and elsewhere to collect recyclables, he said.

Since launching nine months ago, National Starch's recycling program has reduced the plant's trash 97 percent.

The little that is still thrown away is incinerated and converted to energy, rather than hauled to a landfill, Catron said. The company had to buy balers and bins, but the startup costs were less than $50,000, easy to justify given the savings in hauling costs, he said.

The company's 460 line workers also quickly learned to appreciate the recycling program, Catron said, because it meant less time hauling trash from one part of the plant to another. Now, recycling bins sit at each processing line.

"For the [hourly employees], it makes their job easier," Catron said. "It's more organized, and they're saving the environment."

As is the case with National Starch, money saved through recycling probably isn't going to make or break a manufacturer. But the impact on the bottom line is still noticeable, said those who use byproducts in their own operations.

Especially with large companies, the "green" factor is a big motivation, said John Sheldon, general manager of the Terre Haute feedmaker who takes byproducts from National Starch and a variety of cereal makers, grain factories and commercial bakers throughout the Midwest.

"Some companies recognize it as recycling, and their corporate goal is to recycle," Sheldon said. "But especially if we're competing against another company [to buy the byproducts], it comes down to the bottom line."

Some manufacturers may realize their waste has value, but don't know how much or what to do with it, said Mike Wright, president of Lawrence-based Wisdom Environmental Inc.

The company, which bills itself as a "boutique recycler," specializes in finding buyers for relatively small amounts of metals, polymers and plastics that find their way onto the factory floor.

Although the manufacturer may be paying only a few hundred dollars a week to have something like copper shavings or little rubber pieces from new tires hauled off, the annual savings can add up to tens of thousands of dollars a year, Wright said. He said he often asks new clients if he can look through their trash to identify potentially lucrative recyclables.

"To them it may have no perceived value," Wright said of byproducts. "They're in business to make a product, not to sell waste."

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