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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS : THE BUSINESS BEAT

Old Things Now Are Not Forgotten by Manufacturers

October 10, 2000|ROSEMARY CLANDOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people toss their empty plastic milk containers in the recycling bin and that's it. They know their refuse is recycled, but into what, who knows?

But companies throughout Ventura County, such as Moorpark's Marplast, are turning an afterthought into a vital part of their business. Old plastic and cardboard go in as junk and come out as new products.

Since 1994, Marplast, which has 40 employees, has been using recycled materials to make plastic containers, playthings and industrial items.

"We buy a fairly high grade [of recycled material]," said Martyn Keats, owner of Marplast. "Milk bottles are the best and cleanest and can be incorporated into light-colored bottles."

Marplast gets its recycled material from a processing plant, where plastic containers are sorted, ground and washed to remove labels and ink. The plastic is melted and forced through an extruder--something like a cheese grater--which produces pellets the size of corn kernels.

"We've been promoting it forever," Keats said. "It has some excellent properties. We're able to make parts for less money."

Keats said he pays about 35 cents per pound for the high-density polyethylene pellets, and he purchased about 1.2 million pounds last year. Recycled content in Marplast products ranges from 10% to 100%, depending on the supply and cost.

Sometimes recycled material costs more than virgin products.

"It just depends on the market demand," Keats said. "But generally it is less than the price of new material."

Price conditions also depend on export activity, said Mike Hage, mill manager at Willamette Industries in Oxnard, which recycles cardboard boxes into the corrugated material used in new cardboard boxes.

Foreign companies are major buyers of old cardboard in California, said Hage, a 24-year veteran at Willamette.

Willamette has been using recycled boxes since 1965. Now its facility daily turns out 563 tons of finished "corrugated medium" on 60-inch diameter rolls. That keeps the mill hopping 362 days a year, 24 hours a day.

For every 100 tons of old cardboard boxes used, the company yields 93 tons of finished product. The 7% not used is waste, such as metal clips, and is shipped to Northern California where it is burned and used to produce power for other manufacturing uses.

"We're diverting as much as we can out of landfills," Hage said.

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David Goldstein, analyst at the county's solid-waste management department, said there has been a 6.9% decline in the amount of material dumped into landfills. "Moreover, since 1999, we have found better ways to track waste, so we are accounting for more of it."

And while Ventura County residents are consuming and discarding more than ever, they are reducing the effect by recycling more than ever, he said.

Willamette, a well-landscaped plant on 17 1/2 acres near the Oxnard sewer plant, has contracts to collect squashed and baled cardboard boxes from Costco and Vons grocery stores in Southern California. It also has contracts with Albertsons in California and Arizona.

"Contracts make the supply reliable," Hage said.

Willamette needs a stable supply of recyclable products because it also generates electricity at its facility.

The exhaust from the plant's gas turbine machinery, similar to a jet engine, is recovered and used to steam-dry paper. Then it condenses and returns to the boiler.

"We use half the power, and the other half is sold to Edison," Hage said. "What is sold can supply energy to cover the residential electrical needs of a city the size of Port Hueneme for 24 hours a day."

Second-quarter net earnings for Willamette rose to $90.2 million, up 44% from second-quarter 1999 net earnings of $63.3 million.

Despite the environmental advantages, some customers still dislike recycled products, Keats said.

"Some customers don't want to use it because they don't know what it is," he said. "And because it negatively affects the physical appearance of a container."

Customers who use his recycled containers for hair-care products like white or opaque colors best, he said, so he reduces the content of recycled material in those bottles.

"When you get a bottle that has a greenish tint, it has a little bit of impact," said Barry Lindsey, director of supply chain management at Ricoh Electronics in Santa Ana, which uses Marplast-made bottles for their copy machine toner. "So you have to inform customers that the quality is the same, but the color of the bottle is different."

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Federal laws prohibit the use of recycled products for food containers and medical products.

Marplast also makes the "Stomp Rocket," a toy that sends an air-powered rocket 200 to 400 feet in the air.

Another big seller is a bathroom plunger made with plastic, not the traditional rubber suction piece.

Second-quarter earnings for Keats' privately owned company are up 20% over the the previous year, he said.

And Marplast's business could go beyond bottles, Keats said. He is preparing his plant to make ready-to-assemble furniture made of recycled materials.

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