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Axion International’s building products are establishing a market for hard-to-recycle and under-recycled plastics.

Kristin Smith April 11, 2012

Forget about steel, wood and concrete. Axion International is building bridges, railroads, girders and pilings without using any of those traditional building materials. Instead, the New Providence, N.J.-based company is taking post-consumer and post-industrial plastic and turning it into building products strong enough to compete with traditional materials.

The products Axion makes are giving steel, wood and concrete a run for their money, having withstood the test of time and strength. The products have been gaining traction with builders over the past decade, and the company’s co-founder Jim Kerstein thinks it is just the tip of the iceberg.

“One of the keys to getting more than the current 17 percent of plastics recycled is to develop the necessary pull-through, or major uses, of recycled materials,” he says. “As Axion and hopefully other manufacturers of recycled products continue to grow and start to develop significant markets, it will become imperative to collect and utilize more materials that currently seem to fall outside of the recycling stream.”

In Kerstein’s opinion, the major producers in the plastics industry have shown very little interest in recycling, whereas other industries, such as concrete and steel, have major recycling programs led by major producers. Plastic recycling, by contrast, is driven by the entrepreneurs and small business, he says. He says he hopes that changes as more companies like his drive demand for the material.
 

The Beginning
The proprietary blend of recycled plastics and polymers produced by Axion dates back more than a decade. Axion was co-founded by Kerstein to take advantage of plastic material that had traditionally been landfilled.

Kerstein worked with scientists and engineers at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., to develop uses for these plastics.

“I contacted Rutgers 15 to 18 years ago based on the work that they were doing in recycling,” Kerstein says. “We had many of the same goals and started working together to develop our structural line of products.”

From that collaboration came an infrastructure building material dubbed recycled structural composite (RSC). Axion was established in 2008 to bring this composite material to market and is publicly traded on the over-the-counter (OTC) market. (Read about Axion International’s board of directors at www.axionintl.com/about_leadership.html.)

According to Kerstein, RSC addresses corrosion and maintenance issues associated with various infrastructure markets, such as railroads, bridges, marine and other industrial applications.

“The concept behind what we do is to combine tough, rugged materials that can take a pounding with other materials that are stiffer and more rigid,” Kerstein says.

Early tests of these materials date back to the mid-1990s. Early bridge projects were completed in Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., and in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Rail projects have been varied and include both transit and freight lines.

Axion’s major products made of RSC include Ecotrax composite railroad ties as well as Struxure beams, boards, pilings and bridges and boardwalks. All of these products are made of 100 percent recycled content, with HDPE (high-density polyethylene) as the base material, according to the company.

“We have a varied patent portfolio that uses HDPE as our primary material,” explains Kerstein. “It is blended with other more rigid polymers and polymer composites to achieve our properties.”

According to Kerstein, many companies have attempted to do what Axion does but have found difficulty being cost competitive and achieving performance standards.

“Axion, working with Rutgers as a think tank, has developed multiple material formulations—all recycling oriented —that allow us to address the structural requirements of various industrial markets and to cope with fluctuating market conditions as a given material undergoes price fluctuations,” Kerstein says.

European Ties

Axion International, New Providence, N.J., a manufacturer of recycled structural composite (RSC) railroad ties, completed the installation of what it says is Europe’s first recycled plastic bridge in December 2011.

The plastic bridge was prefabricated in the United States at Axion’s plant in Portland, Pa., and transported and installed at a site near Edinburgh, Scotland. The recycled plastic bridge consists of three spans, is approximately 12 feet wide by 90 feet long and replaces an old steel beam and timber deck road bridge.

“Axion couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of this historic project in Scotland, producing Europe’s first plastic recycled bridge,” says Steve Silverman, Axion president and CEO. “This project validates our strategy to deploy Axion’s building materials using our prefabrication concept to reduce on site down-time and costs, creating a more value-added proposition for our customers.”

Silverman continues, “By taking advantage of our material’s strong yet lightweight nature, we were able to cost-effectively ship the entire span to Scotland and then complete construction on site in just two weeks.”

In addition, he says Axion has partnered with engineering, contracting and architectural firms to better understand field performance, and Kernstein adds, independent lab tests also have been performed according to the methodology of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA).

In 2011, Axion used 10 million pounds of recycled resin. Kerstein says Axion is on track to quadruple that in 2012 by budgeting for in excess of 40 million pounds of recycled resin.

“Our materials come directly from MRFs (material recovery facilities) that collect consumer scrap,” Kerstein says. In addition, the company secures scrap from manufacturers, including the automotive industry.

“Axion works closely with its manufacturing partners to generate materials and increase our capacity to grind and process materials and employs a full-time director of material sourcing to identify new streams,” Kerstein adds.
 

Manufacturing Model
Axion uses an outsourced manufacturing model in which the company partners with manufacturing organizations that have excess production capacity. In addition to the 12 employees that work directly for Axion, the company also has supported or re-established 100 manufacturing jobs. Ultra Poly, Portland, Pa., was the first manufacturing facility to produce Axion products.

Axion is currently manufacturing in three facilities, including a plant in Waco, Texas, owned by Coll Materials, a processor of post-consumer and post-industrial scrap plastics with headquarters in Zanesville, Ohio.

“The true beauty of our manufacturing model is that it allows us to expand quickly and economically in different regions or countries and to add different types of production from large profile to sheet and intrusion through continuous molding,” Kerstein says.

Kerstein adds that the facilities where Axion manufactures its products have increased their capacity to accommodate Axion’s growth projections, which will lead to a three-to-four-fold increase in the production of its building products by the end of 2012.

Axion uses classic extrusion molding machines and manufactures its product through continuous extrusion and what the company refers to as either intrusion or flow molding.

According to Kerstein, it is not easy to find a company with a business concept that makes both social and economic sense, but Axion breaks the mold (pun intended).

“We think that Axion’s green infrastructure products fill those categories,” Kerstein says. “Axion never stops looking to improve with regard to products, processes, materials incorporated and results. We are continuing to examine different market segments in which we feel that Axion can make a significant impact while maintaining our focus on what we are currently building.”


 

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at ksmith@gie.net.

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