Chicago-based Azek Building Products opened a $25 million recycling facility in Wilmington, Ohio, capable of turning 100 million pounds of used polyethylene a year into a material for its TimberTech brand composite decking.

The 102,000-square-foot facility houses a highly automated operation that takes trucked-in bales of post-consumer and post-industrial goods, such as plastic wrap, shampoo bottles, milk jugs and detergent bottles, from throughout the Midwest for reprocessing. The end product is a granular material formulated with wood fiber and extruded three miles away at a manufacturing plant for TimberTech Pro and Edge decking boards.

Azek marked the opening with tours on April 23 and also celebrated Earth Day, which was April 22, with attendees. Azek's goal is for the plant to recycle 100 million pounds annually by 2020. If the goal is reached, Azek could double the amount of material it recycles to 200 million pounds a year.

Azek renovated a Wilmington building for the facility and looked to Europe as well as the U.S. for equipment as the company moves forward with plans to divert waste from landfills and become more vertically integrated, said Bobby Gentile, Azek's senior vice president of operations, in a phone interview.

The first of three recycling lines is operating 24/7 with 28 employees. Azek will bring a second line online in July. The facility is expected to reprocess 55 million pounds of PE this summer. The third line is scheduled to start in early 2020 along with 12 more hires.

"One of our core values is do the right thing. We're doing this to keep 100 million pounds of waste out of landfills," Gentile said. "It also allows us to better manage our materials and have better quality control over them."

In addition, the recycling operation will help insulate Azek from market fluctuations for virgin resins, Gentile added.

The facility was designed to be one of the most efficient in the U.S. in terms of power, water, heating, cooling and lighting as well as one of the most innovative.

"This is a highly automated operation with a continuous flow. The material goes through multiple continuous transformations to sort, clean, mix, densify and properly size while being continuously monitored and adjusted by the autonomous control systems," Gentile said. "The material never stops from the time you put it on the line until the final stage where it is put into a silo. We go from bringing bales into the building to a finished product in the silos outside the building with only a few operators to support the entire process."

The recycling facility has a wide processing band for various grades of materials with high and low densities from post-consumer and post-industrial markets.

"We have the ability to use very different grades of material and blend them in line at very precise ratios to create our formulations," Gentile said. "We also built a lot of blending and quality audits into our process to ensure the highest quality material. We know what we're getting and we know the level of quality that we will have."

Azek is working directly with some companies to secure their waste stream as well as recyclers in the Midwest that bundle materials from different companies. The bales weigh between 50 and 3,000 pounds.

Recycling plant employees break down the bales and put the material on a conveyor belt, which feeds into a sortation process that removes foreign objects, such as wood, metals and aluminum.

The material then gets shredded into two-inch flakes and decontaminated a second time with magnets and shakers used to pull out any remaining unwanted items. After that, the line feeds into an automated blending system.

Once the materials are mixed to the proper ratios, the shredded flakes go through a densifying process, which melts everything and extrudes a homogenous material.

"After it has been densified, we cool it, grind it and pulverize it into its final form," Gentile said. "The material is then transferred by bulk trucks to our main manufacturing facility to be introduced into our deck board extrusion process."

TimberTech Edge, which is made from PE and wood fiber, is capped on three sides and competes against pressure-treated wood decking. It is geared for cost-conscious consumers. TimberTech Pro, which is capped on four sides, is a higher-end product.

Azek's TimberTech products are made with PE and wood fiber and compete with pressure-treated wood decking.

Azek says it wants to double the recycled materials used for its polymer caps by 2020. The company's ultimate goal is to manufacture decking from 95 percent recycled material.

The company says it reached the 95 percent recycled mark with Azek pavers. Every 500 square feet of the pavers represents 250 truck tires and 7,500 plastic containers diverted from U.S. landfills, according to a company fact sheet.

Azek Building Products is owned by Azek Co. LLC, which changed its name from CPG International LLC in 2018.

With estimated sales of $425 million, Azek Co. holds the No. 11 spot for the decking and railing extrusion that Plastics News tracks.

One of TimberTech's competitors, Trex Co. Inc., also is promoting its efforts to reclaim used PE film and wood for its composite decking, which is made from more than 95 percent recycled content. The Winchester, Va.-based company is trying to sign up more retailers of any size for a program it is re-branding as NexTrex. Participants get recycling bins and instructional materials to collect items from shoppers, such as bread bags, product overwraps, newspaper sleeves, bubble wrap and cereal box liners.

Trex compensates retail partners for collecting plastic material, which is sent to local distribution centers. It is then sorted and shipped to the company's manufacturing facilities in Winchester and Fernley, Nev. Currently, 32,000 stores are participating.

Trex repurposes more than 500 million pounds of plastic and reclaimed wood annually through commercial partnerships and community programs.

"NexTrex is an integral component to Trex's sourcing efforts, and we're thrilled by the growing interest and participation by retailers across the country," Dave Heglas, Trex's senior director of material management, said in a news release. "Through NexTrex, we collected more than 130 million pounds of recycled plastic from retailers in 2018 alone."

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With sales of $565.2 million, Trex is the sixth largest extruder of pipes, profiles and tubing in North America, according to Plastics News data.

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