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Hawaii firm wants to keep clean scrap plastic foam out of landfills

Aricle from the Honolulu Advertiser by Gordon Y.K. Pang on November 17, 2008

KAPOLEI — Wanted: foam waste big and small — from those huge chunks that insulate refrigerators to those smaller blocks that packed your iPod.

Pacific Allied Products, the state's only manufacturer of plastic foam-based roofing material, surfboard blanks, portable ice chests and even those ubiquitous packing "peanuts," recently began recycling its own scrap foam.

The program to recycle foam, also known by its scientific name of expanded polystyrene, or EPS, is proving so successful that Pacific Allied now wants to help other companies and even consumers get rid of their foam as well.

It's a proposal with significant implications in a state where there's a growing push to "go green" and recycle while the debate continues over how to divert waste from Hawai'i's overtaxed landfills.

"Bring your foam and we'll pick it up from here," said Bernie Coleman, president and general manager of the Campbell Industrial Park-based Pacific Allied.

Coleman estimated his company will use 1.8 million pounds of virgin foam material in the coming year.

About 4 percent, or 72,000 pounds, winds up as scrap and until a few months ago, that scrap was going into the city's waste stream.

But that changed in August, when Pacific Allied spent about $1 million upgrading its equipment, including the purchase of a block mold machine that allows about 15 percent of its waste to be reused in the manufacturing of the company's products.

The remaining 85 percent of scrap foam is now going into a high-volume extruder, also known as a "densifier." Because foam is 98 percent air and 2 percent plastic, the densifier can grind, heat and ultimately shrink the material to a little over 1 percent of its previous volume.

While Pacific Allied isn't able to use that compressed material for its current products, it is shipping bags full of the cowpie-shaped globs to the U.S. Mainland and Asia, where they again are melted and then remolded into products such as cafeteria trays, video and audio tape bodies and cases, picture frames, plant trays and other products, company officials said.

A $100,000 annual landfill bill is being eliminated, Pacific Allied is now paying 15 percent less in raw EPS materials by using recycled scrap, and the company is getting a nominal amount for the 85 percent of product being shipped away, Coleman said.

"And it actually reduces our carbon footprint," Coleman said, adding that Pacific Allied has implemented a "zero-waste program" for not just its foam plant, but its next-door plastic bottle factory, which also recycles its waste.

MORE RECYCLE

Two other companies with large amounts of foam waste have also gone into the foam recycling game in recent months.

C.S. Wo, the kama'aina furniture company, and Servco Home & Appliance Distribution both also recently bought densifying machines.

But rather than get rid of the densified material on their own, C.S. Wo and Servco have partnered with Pacific Allied, which provides the containers and ships them out.

Officials with both C.S. Wo and Servco also recommended foam recycling for Hawai'i companies that use or get a lot of the stuff.

Ed Nakano, C.S.Wo's vice president/secretary/treasurer, called it "a no-brainer" for a company that sees a significant number of its incoming products packed with foam.

Nakano said he was looking for various ways of improving the company's warehouse operations and, during visits to Mainland retailers, noted that they all had foam compactor machines.

"I asked myself, 'Why are we the only fools that don't have it?' " Nakano said.

He estimated the company is saving about 50 percent in trash disposal fees by setting up its densifier at its 90,000-square-foot distribution center in the Bougainville area. The cost of the densifier should be recouped in less than three years, he said.

Jerry Gillotti, Servco Home & Appliance operations manager, said his company also expects to save about 50 percent on its disposal costs. And that's not counting the fact that the company already is recycling its cardboard packaging materials, he said.

Before its foam recycling operation began, Gillotti estimated that his company was filling one typical 40-cubic-yard "roll-off" refuse container a week in foam.

Gillotti said he has been told that foam material can stay in a landfill for as long as 500 years before it starts to biodegrade.

"You're talking about a material that is not environmentally friendly," he said.

Coleman and Roger Morey, his vice president of sales and marketing, hope other companies feel the same way.

Pacific Allied estimates that 200 tons of foam are brought into the Islands each month.

FUEL FOR H-POWER

Suzanne Jones, the city's recycling coordinator, said a good portion of the foam that's disposed of on the island actually goes to the island's H-POWER plant where, like other waste, it is incinerated and converted into electrical energy that goes into HECO's power system.

Whether companies should take their recyclable foam to Pacific Allied is something each company will need to analyze, she said. It might be particularly beneficial for a company that generates a lot of foam waste to do its own recycling, take it to Pacific Allied or keep putting it into the city's solid-waste stream.

"Each generator, or company, would have to assess that," Jones said. "Both material recycling and energy recycling provide benefit to the island's sustainability."

Does it make sense for plate-lunch establishments to begin having all their used foam clamshell containers washed and separated?

"I don't know yet," Jones said. "It depends on the value (of the material) and also the cost of the collection system. There's a lot to evaluate."

Jones applauded Pacific Allied's efforts. "I'm impressed by the fact that they're looking at how they can re-utilize their resources within their industry," she said. "They're looking and saying this is an important and smart thing to do."

Coleman, Pacific Allied's president, said that at this point, the company is making "pennies" from the shipping of the recycled foam product to its buyers, enough to pay for the cost of the new equipment and the operational costs of the program.

The company is not intending to pay for the foam that is brought in by businesses or individuals, he said.

But that's not the focus of the foam recycling effort, he said. "Our goal is to try to be an environmentally green company."

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