Just last summer 30-year-old Bryan Sims was knocking on the doors of auto companies begging for leftovers. "I've got a plan," he told them. "My company can spin used fiberglass into `gold.'"
The "gold" would be made by recycling the waste fiberglass back into body panels and other components at great savings - up to 30% less than the cost of virgin fiberglass, he told them.
Mr. Sims' four-year-old company, Oakville, Ont.-based Phoenix Fiberglass Inc., can separate the fibers from the resin and fillers and turn them into high-quality recycled material. What he needed was the auto companies' blessing so that more sheet molding compound (SMC) suppliers would send their waste to his company.
The automakers already were encouraging suppliers to use post-consumer recycling content in their products, but they haven't pushed on the post-industrial side because environmentalists usually turn up their noses at post-industrial recycling.
Nevertheless, the reuse potential is huge; about 180 million lbs. (82 million kg) of SMC waste is created annually. SMC is used in more than 300 body panels and other components, and it's growing. Forecasts put SMC usage at 271 million lbs. (123 million kg) by 1998.
Although automakers liked what they heard, the wheels move slowly in huge corporations - too slowly for a young entrepreneur trying to meet a payroll.
He founded Phoenix in 1991 after the bottom fell out of his custom-made boat business, thanks to a depressed market. He turned his knowledge of fiberglass manufacturing into recycling and, with help from private investment from the U.S. and Canada, opened the first Phoenix recycling facility in 1994. Processing capacity then was 6,000 tons (5,400 t) of waste fiberglass a year.
Working with the SMC Automotive Alliance (SMCAA), a 33-member group of molders and suppliers, he was able to secure some used fiberglass. Then, in stepped Owens-Corning. Late last year, the raw material producer bought an equity interest in Phoenix, and it plans to market the recycled glass fibers and fillers to the North American composites industry.
The beauty of the alliance, says Owens-Corning Vice President-Composites Jack Jenks, who also serves as general manager of Phoenix, is that there now is a complete cycle - open- and closed-loop options. Owens-Corning has commitments from several other SMC molders to bring their post-industrial waste to Phoenix, increasing the total to 10. But that's still only enough to keep Phoenix working one shift with 18 people. "To make it attractive, we need two shifts," says Mr. Jenks.
That means selling the recycled material to non-automotive businesses for items such as railroad brakes, telephone housings, electrical sockets and sinks, plus moving further into the auto business.Corp. has used Phoenix-made recycled fiberglass in Corvettes since 1993. Motor Co. uses it in the Econoline and Corp. in the Ram Van.
The next steps include recycling the fiberglass from used cars and trucks as an infrastructure develops to extract SMC parts during dismantling, and using recycled hybrid fibers in bulk-molded compound parts. "If we can do that, we will be up to a second and third shift," says Mr. Jenks. A second shift is expected by the fall of 1995.
Phoenix's current capacity is 20 million lbs. (9.1 million kg) annually on three shifts.