In the last 33 years, KW Plastics has achieved a number of plastics recycling industry firsts. The company’s journey began when its owners sought to solve a problem afflicting automotive battery manufacturers.
Kenny Campbell and Wiley Sanders founded KW Plastics in Troy, Alabama, in 1981 with a specific purpose in mind: recycling postconsumer automotive battery cases made of polypropylene (PP). The company helped battery manufacturers close the loop in the life cycle of their products by recycling this material and returning it to the manufacturers for use in new battery casings.
“We worked with the battery manufacturers to provide them with a reprocessed resin that met their specifications at a significant cost savings,” says Stephanie Baker, director of market development for KW Plastics Recycling Division. “This was the first successful closed loop in recycled plastics packaging.”
Since that time, KW Plastics has grown into the world’s largest reprocessor of PP and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) plastics, selling more than 500 million pounds of recycled resin annually.
KW Plastics at a glance
Locations: KW Plastics is headquartered in Troy, Alabama, with processing facilities in Troy and in Bakersfield, California. KW Plastics Recycling Division operates out of Troy, as does KW Container.
Executive leadership: KW Plastics and its affiliated companies are co-owned by Kenny Campbell and Wiley Sanders. Scott Saunders serves as general manager of KW Plastics Recycling Division, while Stephanie Baker serves as director of market development.
No. of employees: More than 420 people are employed in KW Plastics’ recycling operations, while more than 160 employees work for KW Containers.
Services: KW Plastics recycles postconsumer and postindustrial engineering-grade polypropylene (PP), primarily in the form of automotive battery cases, while KW Plastics Recycling Division recycles postconsumer high-density polyethylene bottles and bulky rigids and postconsumer and postindustrial flexible PP. KW Containers makes 100-percent-recycled and recyclable paint containers.
Equipment: KW Plastics’ operations include size reduction, grinding, washing, drying, extrusion, compounding and pelletizing equipment in addition to 22 extruders, including six twin-screw extruders.
Certifications: KW Plastics is ISO 9001:2000 registered with ISO-IEC 17025:2005 accredited laboratories. The company holds two FDA nonobjection letters for postconsumer PP in food-contact applications and is the first plastics recycling company to achieve certification from United Laboratories (UL) for its postconsumer resin as well as the first recycling company to have resin certified for automotive supply.
Baker says KW Plastics’ rigid quality assurance measures and proprietary technology allow its postconsumer recycled resin (PCR) to be used in a variety of applications by major manufacturers throughout the country, including those in the automotive, beauty and personal care packaging, recreation, construction, agriculture, paint and coatings containers, flexible packaging and sheet sectors.
In 1986, five years after KW Plastics of Troy was established, the company opened a second facility in Bakersfield, California.
“After opening our West Coast facility and proving that used automotive batteries had value, we quickly captured over 80 percent of the market share,” Baker says.
However, the company understood that it would have to diversify its operations to grow, she says. “HDPE seemed to be a growing stream in curbside recycling, so the owners chose to open KW Plastics Recycling Division in 1993 to recycle postconsumer HDPE.”
Baker adds, “As plastics in packaging continued to evolve in the past 20 years, we continued to make investments to further expand what we were able to process.”
In addition to HDPE bottles, KW Plastics Recycling Division now recycles HDPE bulky rigids bales (items such as laundry baskets, large totes and 5-gallon buckets), postconsumer PP bales (a mix of household bottles, cups, caps, tubs and lids) and postconsumer and postindustrial flexible PP (bulk bags, Super Sacks, woven and nonwoven fiber).
She says KW Plastics has worked with material recovery facilities (MRFs) throughout the U.S. in the last five years to add bulky rigids and postconsumer PP materials to the recycling stream and to recover these items for the domestic market.
“When we established our bulky rigids recycling program, our largest challenges were education and infrastructure,” Baker says. “At the MRF, bulky rigids were typically removed from the line prior to sorting due to their size. MRFs were built to mainly handle bottles, and anything else that didn’t fit in the conveyors was often included in a mixed plastics bale for export.”
To aid the MRFs in recovering this material, she says, KW Plastics developed specifications and encouraged communities to accept bulky rigids for recycling. “Due to the lack of current domestic markets and size limitations, bulky rigids were considered contamination and not included in community messaging,” Baker adds.
KW Plastics purchases feedstock for its recycling division from across North America, working directly with companies that sort and generate material. “We buy very little from brokers,” Baker adds.
She says diversity in terms of feedstock and market applications has been key to KW Plastics Recycling Division’s stability and growth during otherwise disruptive economic and market conditions.
“KW PCR can generally be used successfully in all major market segments where virgin plastics can be used,” says Pedro Morales, director of sales and marketing for KW Plastics Recycling Division, including building and construction, transportation, piping and rigid and flexible packaging.
He offers that KW Plastics’ growth potential is not restricted to any one of these segments, saying “high growth is expected from all.” Morales adds, “Of particular interest is food-contact applications with certain limitations.”
KW Plastics currently holds two nonobjection letters (NOLs) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Center of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for the recycling process it uses to produce postconsumer PP. The FDA says the material is suitable for use in manufacturing reusable crates or pallets for holding relatively large quantities of fresh, unwrapped product and shelled eggs under room temperature and below, as well as for use in disposable food-service items, such as utensils and hot and cold drink cups. The resin, commercially referred to as KWR621 FDA, is a food-contact-grade PP that has been approved for use at levels of up to 100 percent.
KW Plastics can produce PCR of this quality thanks to its rigorous testing process. “We test our material throughout the entire process of sampling, purchasing, washing, extrusion, sorting and shipping or resin,” Baker says. “A Certificate of Analysis accompanies each lot of material we sell, assuring our customers the resin meets their specifications.”
Doug McLendon, a polymer chemist who serves as KW Plastics’ quality assurance manager, says, “KW ensures the quality of the recycled resins that it produces by 1) controlling the quality level and consistency of incoming materials; 2) vigorously pursuing the objectives of our quality team in improving performance, reducing waste, improving efficiency and creating a safer and more employee- and environmentally friendly workspace; 3) continuing to use our experience and imagination to drive our processes and the recycling industry forward with innovative thinking and decisive action; 4) leveraging our size and scope to force homogeneity in each of our product lines and, in turn, consistency in our customers’ experience of our products; and 5) ruthlessly working every day to earn our customers’ satisfaction and exceed their needs before they even fully perceive what those needs will be.”
He adds, “Our pervasive and exhaustive monitoring of our processes and materials, combined with strong commitment to quality from the very top of the organization down to every employee who touches the product, means there are a thousand eyes on the process every day, striving to please the customer with great products.”
KW Plastics’ ISO registrations help the company to meet its quality objectives.
“KW’s ISO 9001:2008 registrations are process specific, so we have two such registrations, one for the PP manufacturing process and one for the HDPE manufacturing process,” McLendon says. “Registration to ISO 9001 means … we have a system of continuous improvement in place to constantly monitor our processes to make them better [and] more efficient. It means our quality process is audited by a third-party registrar semiannually to ensure that we maintain our processes and documentation, remaining true to the standard. It means that we have an internal audit system in place with our own accredited internal auditors to constantly monitor the system for fidelity to the standard. Finally, it means that management commitment to quality has been made from the very top of the organization.”
McLendon says ISO registrations are of particular value when supplying companies that require ISO registrations industrywide, as in the automotive sector.
KW’s quality laboratory is ISO-IEC 1705 accredited and third-party audited annually. This registration also mandates an internal auditing process and intralaboratory testing to ensure precision and accuracy are maintained. “It ensures KW’s customers that the lab is annually compared in round-robin, blind interlaboratory studies with other labs all around the world for proficiency in performing the tests within its scope of accreditation,” he says.
Strengthening the supply chain
Troy, Alabama-based KW Plastics helped to introduce and pass legislation in the Alabama legislature designed to prevent degradable plastics from contaminating plastics recovered for recycling.
“We worked very closely with our trade associations, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC), to support healthy recycling initiatives that protect and/or build quality supply for plastics in our southeastern region,” says Stephanie Baker, director of market development for KW Plastics.
She says degradable additives present a labeling issue, posing a threat to plastics recycling when used in containers that are commonly recycled. “We wanted to make sure the consumer understood that ‘green’ degradable packaging didn’t mean the package should be included in their recycling bin,” she says of the legislation that KW Plastics lobbied for in its home state.
As a result of the law, biodegradable bottles must include labeling that instructs consumers not to place them in a recycling bin. The labeling requirements also help consumers to understand how to properly dispose of these containers. The law does not prohibit the sale or use of any material, however.
Baker says KW Plastics, as the world’s largest HDPE recycler and a significant employer in its community of Troy, felt it was important “to provide leadership to our industry while protecting our resin quality and jobs.”
KW Plastics’ attention to detail has earned it many plastics recycling industry firsts in addition to closing the loop for battery case recycling. For instance, KW Plastics was the first recycled resin supplier to receive Ford’s Q1 approved supplier award in 1994.
“Approximately 20 percent of KW resin is sold for automotive applications that have very low liability, such as air ducts, fender wells and bumpers,” Baker says.
She adds that the company also is certified to supply HDPE for use in automotive air management systems and has received many supplier certifications and awards.
KW Plastics also was the first plastic reclaimer to receive United Laboratories (UL) certification for its PCR. “KW having a UL-certified material means that such a product can be used in applications that are required to meet a given UL rating,” McLendon says. Space heaters would be one example.
Baker adds that KW is the only North American reclaimer of woven and nonwoven PP fiber.
“At each step in our history, KW has proven to be a pioneer in our innovation and investment to be an established domestic market for recycling nonconventional plastics,” Baker says. “Our capacity, investment and quality is what sets KW Plastics apart.”
Partnering to increase recycling
Stephanie Baker, director of market development for KW Plastics Recycling Division, Troy, Alabama, served as chairman of the SERDC (Southeast Recycling Development Council) 120, a voluntary initiative to explore public-private partnerships and strategic investments designed to increase the recovery of recyclables in the Southeast.
Convened by SERDC at the Paper and Packaging Symposium in December 2013, the SERDC 120 sought to “engage industry in voluntary public-private partnerships to make strategic, one-time, leveraged investments that sustain higher levels of recovery through the adoption of proven best practices in municipal recycling programs.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 4 contributed support and planning to the project.
Baker says, “The 120-day effort ended successfully in early May and has now merged with the Curbside Value Partnership’s Recycling Partnership.
“Our demand for more material and our interest in boosting our local and regional economies drives our interest in participating in SERDC and the Recycling Partnership,” she says of KW Plastics.
The company is the world’s largest recycler of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) plastics.
“As a recycler located within the Southeast, we get a small percentage of feedstock from our region,” Baker says. “In fact, if we relied solely on our state of Alabama for supply, we could only run two days each year.”
However, she says the Southeast region has strong demand for recyclables, citing both KW Plastics and Custom Polymers as large consumers of HDPE and PET (polyethylene terephthalate), respectively, in the region.
“We know that if our state recycled just 10 percent more each year, the potential economic impact would be over 1,400 new jobs, over $66 million in personal annual income and $3 million in annual state tax revenue.”
Baker says the recycling industry “is seeing focused interest from outside the recycling community in our collection infrastructure, particularly in the Southeast, where we have such a high demand for not only plastics but also other commodities.”
She adds that the packing community understands the recycled plastics supply chain in a way that it has not in the past. “We are seeing brand owners engage in, and in some instances, investing in improving collection,” she says.
The Recycling Partnership provides outreach and infrastructure improvements in the Southeast to increase the recovery of recyclables. The Curbside Value Partnership (CVP) oversees the initiative, which pools partner dollars to offer communities technical and financial assistance in four key areas, according to the CVP:
More information on the Recycling Partnership is available at www.recyclecurbside.org/the-recycling-partnership.
KW Plastics considers itself a resin supplier rather than simply a recycler, Baker says.
“As a resin supplier that has an injection-molding company as a sister company, we have a unique position in the industry,” she says, referring to KW Container, which manufactures 100-percent-recycled paint and coating containers in Troy, Alabama. (See “Manufacturing More Than Recycled Resins,” below.) “We have expertise in each stage of the supply chain and often assist our converters in using PCR.”
Baker says KW Plastics’ owners understand that recycling is a long-term commitment and that success is best not left to chance. “While we have grown tremendously, it’s been a steady history of focusing, perfecting and then expanding. I have seen our owners invest their profits back into the company time and time again,” she adds.
“As an industry leader, KW Plastics and its sisters companies can’t measure success in our history alone but will always keep looking ahead, experimenting and investing in our future.”
Manufacturing more than recycled resins
KW Plastics was founded in 1981 in Troy, Alabama, to recycle engineering-grade polypropylene (PP) automotive battery cases. In 1993 the company formed KW Plastics Recycling Division to recycle postconsumer commodity-grade PP as well as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) recovered from material recovery facilities across the United States. The company also learned how to put its own recycled resin to use, manufacturing 100-percent-recycled and 100-percent-recyclable paint containers through its KW Container division, established in 1998.
KW Container has locations in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Alabama.
“We established our first off-site KW Container operation in conjunction with our startup customer, Behr,” says Brian McDaniels, director of sales for KW Container, also based in Troy. “As we grew our customer base, we aligned our locations to geographically support and align with their distribution centers.”
Each year, KW Containers consumes 70 million pounds of KW Plastics’ resins and produces 125 million gallon-size containers, 30 million quart-size containers, 1.2 million large metric-size containers and 1.2 million small metric-size containers, he adds.
“We have ongoing new development, which we expect will increase our demand sooner than later,” McDaniels says.
The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at email@example.com.