May 2005

North Carolina company recycles rubber and plastics innovatively

With the high price of petroleum today, cost-saving combinations of recycled rubber and plastics are attracting companies worldwide to Carolina Materials in Gaston County, North Carolina, across the river from Charlotte.

From consumer satellite dish bases to automotive insulation and dunnage, Carolina Materials, LLC, is constantly pushing the recycled rubber and plastics envelope.

“The founders of this company spent eight years developing and patenting a process to recycle tire rubber in the form of crumb rubber by combining it with a polymer and putting it back into products,” said Dr. Phil Friedman, Carolina Materials CEO. “But they were not able to make their process economically viable.

“One of the investors, with whom I had worked before as a turnaround specialist, contacted me and asked me if I could turn this operation around. At the time I was enjoying teaching for Nova Southeastern University in Florida and Jamaica, had a house on the water, and the company was located in Michigan. That was really a hard sell, especially for my wife, but eventually the investor friend persuaded us.”

It did not take Friedman long to size up the situation and determine that focusing on making crumb rubber and outsourcing the extrusion was exactly backwards economically. So he bought a big extrusion machine and began looking around for the best place to put it.

“North Carolina really wanted us, and gave us a $983,360 grant from the Scrap Tire Disposal Account managed by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Waste Management. North Carolina’s ban on scrap tires in landfills had created a market for recycling companies like this one. And Gaston County turned out to be the ideal location, because they had lost so many textile jobs and were looking for new types of industry.”

The Gaston County Economic Development Commission found Friedman a modern manufacturing building, on a hill overlooking the scenic Catawba River, in the small town of Belmont just minutes west of Charlotte and its International Airport.

“We are blending crumb rubber and various polymers together, and heating them in an extruder to encapsulate the rubber and extrude it into sheets,” Friedman said. “Encapsulating the rubber practically eliminates the rubber smell and makes it a very economical material – about 80 percent of the cost of plastic it replaces,” Friedman explained. “Through various heating and cooling zones in the extruder, we can create different products for different applications.”

One product contains 70 percent tire rubber and is used for the bases of consumer satellite TV dishes. Another product is 50 percent tire rubber and is used for flooring. With the rising cost of petroleum, several leading U.S. plastics-product manufacturers are now asking Carolina Materials to explore ways to reduce their material costs.

“We’re finding ways to make materials that are increasingly strong and tear-resistant, and we’re exploring applications for uses like conveyor belts and roofing. We’re also experimenting with a new car matting that has a slip-resistant backing so it does not have to be hooked to the floor. And a product for pontoon boats can be a textured carpet on one side and slip-resistant on the other so people won’t slip when it’s wet.”

Another application is dunnage, custom-molded mounts for shipping heavy parts such as axles, that provide cushion from shocks and resilience under temperature extremes.

“Everything we have is state of the art, and we recycle everything we use,” Friedman said. “In addition to using recycled rubber and polymers, we recycle our own product waste, the water we use, and everything else we can. We’re totally green and feel good about what we do.”


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