In 1973, Ken Rupp was working for his father’s auto dealership, when another opportunity arose. Rupp’s uncle, the manager at a nearby paper mill, told Rupp that the mill would buy paper from him if he got into the recycling business.
Rupp said that he “wanted to have a junkyard some day,” because he thought it was an interesting business, but he didn’t have the capital needed to start his own junkyard. The paper recycling business was similar, but “it was much easier to start out back then.” Today, it would take more to get into the business, but in 1973, Rupp started his paper recycling business with just a pickup truck and the enthusiasm of a 26-year-old who was working for himself.
When he started, much of the recycling consisted of IBM punchcards along with computer printouts, but people weren’t as worried about document destruction as they are today. Knowing the paper was being recycled was enough for his customers.
In his first month in business, Rupp handled about 60 tons of paper; not bad for a startup, but just a drop in a bucket compared to the 14,000 tons of paper that Medina Paper now handles each month. And that doesn’t include the other materials the company recycles. “We’re kind of diversified,” Rupp said, noting that along with paper, Medina also handles shrink wrap, foam, Styrofoam, aluminum litho plates, and “all kinds of plastic.”
Most of the recyclables are picked up within a 130-mile radius of the city of Medina, Ohio, just south of Cleveland. The remaining 10 percent may come from customers in Chicago, Georgia, and elsewhere, coming in on one of the 220 trailers, hauled by one of the 23 tractors that Medina operates. “Ninety-nine percent of the business is industrial,” Rupp said.
Medina’s niche as far as selling the paper is tissue mills. Rupp explained that the tissue mills require a higher grade of paper than is used for other paper products. Technically, the mills could use lower grades, but they’ve found that customers don’t want to see tiny specks from ink or other dark materials in their tissue products.
Rupp said that most of Medina’s high-grade paper goes to a tissue mill in Wisconsin. That mill also produces the familiar brown paper hand towels. Lower grade scrap goes to other local mills, and some gets shipped to China. Rupp said that he found it hard to believe that he would be shipping paper from Ohio to China, but when they’re in the market, he sends them five to six loads a week. That’s as much as 500 to 1,000 tons per week of mixed paper and corrugated. Rupp said that China also buys higher grades of paper, but all of his is spoken for domestically.
Besides the ability to sell to foreign markets, the domestic scene has also changed since Rupp started the business. “All of the little paper mills we sold to are gone,” Rupp said. He said that there have been mergers and buyouts, but that seven or eight of the small mills he used to deal with simply “closed up.”
Even that first mill that he sold to is gone. When he first started selling to them, the company had about 1,800 employees. When it finally closed, about 3 months ago, “they were down to 80.” Rupp said.
While he hasn’t seen a lot of technological changes on his end of the business, Rupp said that the technology at the mills he sells to has changed a lot. “Things we sell them today,” Rupp said, “30 years ago, they wouldn’t have touched.”
Rupp’s biggest challenge is the competition for the scrap paper. “Everybody wants to be in the recycling business,” he said, noting that there are a lot more recycling businesses now than before, and that there is a lot of competition to get and keep the customers. For his part, Rupp said, “We’re 100 percent service oriented.” Pickups are made within 8 hours of the customer’s call. “We use nice equipment and take care of our customers.”
Rupp’s daughter is working for him, and at 26 years old – the age he was when he started the business – he said, “I think she’d like to take it over.” But he’s not ready to step aside yet. “I’ve done this for 35 years, and I love it. We’re still having fun.”