In 2017, the Chinese government drastically reduced the amount of plastic the country imported from the United States for recycling purposes.
China further reduced recycling imports in 2018 and it appears as if the days when the United States could outsource much of its recycling program are gone for good. That has led to increased costs for waste management companies and higher fees for their customers.
But some American companies are seeing an opportunity in the field the Chinese have vacated. They are innovating new uses for recycled plastic.
One of the special tools needed to operate in this industry is the twin-screw extruder, and Lebanon-based Entek is one of the premier North American suppliers of these high-tech machines.
“Our equipment, because of its flexibility, is being used by people who are recycling the plastics. Our customers are diverting plastic that would normally go into the landfill and making product out of it,” said Linda Campbell, the vice president for sales of Entek Manufacturing Inc. “We’re really proud that our equipment is impacting the environment.”
Rapid growth in American-based recycling is leading to a surge in sales for Entek. The manufacturing division was already experiencing steady growth, according to Campbell, but demand has increased dramatically in the past three years, and she estimates that 80% of this growth is tied to recycling.
The increased demand put stress on the company’s existing infrastructure for manufacturing. In addition, increasing sales in Entek’s core business — the sale of battery membranes — was leading to more work for the manufacturing division which was originally created as a support arm for the company.
“We were bursting at the seams,” Campbell said.
So in 2019, the company completed construction of a 30,000-square-foot expansion of its manufacturing division. The additional space provides more room for fabrication, assembly, testing and shipping/receiving.
“It’s great, but it seems like we still need more room. That’s how it usually ends up,” said Marty Suing, production control supervisor for Entek Manufacturing.
He and his team have quickly filled the added space, for which they are thankful.
“We have temperature controls and our lighting is unbelievable for a fab shop,” Suing said. “We have air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter, which is big … I’ve never worked in a machine shop that had heating and cooling. It’s nice.”
The expansion also allowed the company to improve its workflow, which makes the employees more productive. During this growth period, the company has continued to add new employees, with Suing saying his primary need is for experienced welders and fabricators.
Campbell said the company has hired many graduates from the Linn-Benton Community College trades program and has sent some current employees to the campus for additional training.
Overall, Entek currently has 727 total employees, with 167 of those employed by the manufacturing division. One side effect of this growth is that the company has run out of parking spaces on campus for its employees. It is currently working to add another 55 parking spots.
Entek’s entire manufacturing division is an outgrowth of its core business. The original company, Entek International, was founded in 1984 by James Young and its first big break was a contract with General Motors to supply an improved lead acid battery separator material.
In basic terms, traditional lead-acid batteries require a membrane between the positive and negative chambers. This membrane performs multiple tasks, providing separation while allowing ions to be conducted between the chambers.
In order to produce this material, a twin-screw extruder is required to process the complex plastic-based material. At first, Entek purchased these extruders from Germany, but relying on imported parts and expertise to keep the machines running proved to be a drag on the company.
Entek management decided to create its own core group of employees with the skills and expertise to keep the production line running. In 1998, management decided the simplest solution was for the company to build its own extruders and do all of the work in-house.
It didn’t take long for the word to get out that there might be an alternative to importing this equipment from Europe. Companies began asking if Entek would sell these twin-screw extruders. This led to an entirely new branch of external sales and growth for the company.
Because of our modern reliance on materials made from the kinds of complex plastics Entek’s equipment can create, there seems to be no end in sight for potential sales.
“It’s only going to grow, especially as the industry forces equipment manufacturers like us to be innovative,” Campbell said. “As long as we keep innovating our equipment, we’re never going anywhere, we’re going to be around.”