News & Press
Macon plant turns used bottles into roofing - and profit
By S. HEATHER DUNCAN - firstname.lastname@example.org
Freudenberg Texbond can make a Coke bottle look like fluffy cotton. Or a gob of chewed mint gum, or taffy, or smooth ribbon.
But in the end, a million plastic drink bottles a day become 550-pound rolls of polyester roofing material — basically, the space-age equivalent of tar paper
Long before the Obama administration’s emphasis on “green” business, Freudenberg Texbond’s Macon factory was recycling more bottles than America could supply. And some of the company’s customers have recently increased their orders as the federal government offers tax credits for green construction, said president and CEO Richard Shaw.
The plant began production in Macon in 1986 as Texbond, part of an Italian company, but was soon bought by Germany-based Freudenberg. It has since added nine new production lines, the most recent in 2007, Shaw said.
The company has invested $50 million in the plant, which employs about 110 people for an annual payroll of more than $5 million, he said.
The company’s customers are big companies across North America that coat the polyester matting with tar. It’s used in the roofs of commercial flat-topped buildings, such as hotels, hospitals and malls.
The plant relies on a steady stream of plastic bottles, which are cheaper than using “virgin” polyester, Shaw said.
But despite America’s insatiable thirst for soft drinks and bottled water, only 27 percent of these bottles are recycled in the country a year, mostly in the 11 states that require a 5-cent to 10-cent deposit at purchase. In those states, the recycling rate is about 80 percent, compared to 10 percent or less in most others, Shaw said.
Of the 1.5 billion bottles recycled in America each year, more than half are shipped to China for processing, Shaw said.
That leaves Freudenberg Texbond actually importing bottles, mostly from countries in North and Central America.
This problem does not arise at Freudenberg’s other plants making roofing material, which are located in Italy, Poland, Russia and France. In Europe, recycling has been far more widespread for years.
As Shaw walked through the Macon plant last week, he slapped one-ton bags of plastic chips lined up across the plant floor. “This one’s from Canada,” he said, poking it. “This one’s from France.”
The Macon plant gets none of its bottles within Georgia. Those are mostly used in carpet manufacturing in Dalton, Shaw said. Recycled bottles are also used in industries that make plastic strapping for mailed packages and packaging for consumer products, he said.
Shaw listed several obstacles to widespread bottle recycling in the U.S. Municipalities are often uncomfortable with the fluctuating prices of the plastic; it has varied from 3 or 4 cents a pound in the late 1990s to 25 to 30 cents a pound now.
And big bottlers like Coke and Pepsi have successfully fought efforts to add deposits in other states. But that might change now that both companies have promised to include more recycled plastic in their own bottles, Shaw noted.
Recession hasn’t pinched
Freudenberg Texbond works with trade associations that push cities and waste management companies to invest in recycling.
“We also work with companies like Wal-Mart that push their suppliers to be greener,” Shaw said. “We feel like they may eventually be a collection center for bottles. ... And we feel like as demand for recycled material grows, infrastructure will build to back that up.”
The Macon plant has been able to buy enough recycled plastic so far to avoid using new polyester, which is more expensive and requires petroleum as an ingredient.
Shaw said Freudenberg Texbond is riding out the recession well. It has been insulated from the construction slowdown because two-thirds of the material goes toward re-roofing. “If it leaks, you’ve got to fix the roof,” Shaw said.
Freudenberg Texbond’s product is a little different from its competitors. Fiberglass filament is embedded inside the polyester material, making the product easier to coat in asphalt without compromising the strength, Shaw said.
In the plant, plastic chips glittering with blue and green are put into huge mixers several stories high, which vibrate to separate the pieces by size.
After drying, the plastic chips are melted and then pushed through pinprick-sized holes in a cascade that looks like a fine spray of water through a shower head. The result is almost-invisible threads like wisps of hair.
These are spun and stretched to increase their strength before being crimped into fluffy tube shapes.
Even the waste plastic, which is removed in gobs from portions of the machine during the process, is resold to companies that make it into plastic containers, Shaw said.
The processed plastic now resembles cotton wadding and is carded by a machine whose spinning teeth comb the fiber.
Bouncing needles interlock layers, and then fiberglass is sandwiched between sheets of the material. The mats are needle-punched again, then heated to meld them. (“It’s just like an iron on a polyester shirt,” Shaw said.)
The end result is a thick but flexible fabric shipped in giant rolls — about 100 million square meters of it a year, Shaw said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.