July 10, 2015

Stacking the Deck

One billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps, and film were recycled in the U.S. in 2011. That's a 55-percent increase since 2005.

A primary market for this material is the composite-lumber industry. We recently paid a visit to Trex Company's materials-processing center in Winchester, Virginia. The company is the country's largest manufacturer of wood-alternative decking, railing, and fencing products.

Each year Trex turns millions of pounds of recycled and reclaimed plastic and waste wood into their products. Each year the company purchases 300 million pounds of polyethylene and an equal amount of waste wood—material that would have been dumped in a landfill.

A Better Product is in the Bag

Trex recycles approximately 1.3 billion plastic grocery bags annually. Stack after stack of the bags and other polyethylene film fill the floor of the cavernous recycling plant, creating a psychedelic-colored maze. Like the '60s film said: Plastics.

The facility is a constant blur of activity as forklifts move bales of materials around, eventually bringing them to a sorting operation, where a John Deere 135D Excavator opens them and fluffs the materials so they are easy to sort. It then loads the material onto conveyor belts, where it is hand-sorted. Non-polyethylene material is removed before the remainder is processed into plastic pellets, which are used in the manufacture of the composite deck boards.

The recycled wood to make a product that is 95-percent recycled. "There's a synergistic relationship between the plastic and wood—one protects the other," says Darren Garrison, materials processing manager. "The result is a high-end product that looks good and lasts a long time.

"I'm pretty proud of the fact that we recycle hundreds of millions of pounds of materials that would otherwise go into a landfill. People have this preconception of recycled products as somehow inferior—if you have recycled paper, it's not as white. But Trex manufactures a premium product that's better than most decking products. That's pretty neat."

Putting More Productivity Within Reach

The John Deere 135D runs 16 hours a day, five days a week. Though moving plastic isn't a heavy-duty application, that's still a lot of hours. "We haven't had any reliability issues with this machine," says Garrison. "And uptime is very important to our operation. Any lost time we don't get back. If people are standing around not doing anything, we can't get that production back."

The excavator replaced a skid steer with a grapple attachment. A skid steer wasn't the most efficient way to do it. The environment was very harsh on the machine because it was running around so much. We'd spend loads of money on maintenance costs to keep it running."

Trex approached its local John Deere dealership about an alternative solution. The dealer suggested using an excavator, which could remain stationary and not have to constantly "trolley" around. "it was like a light switch went on. Our production jumped significantly. The 135D is perfect for what we need it to do."

Maintenance costs have dropped dramatically. "We haven't had to spend really any money on it except for routine preventive maintenance. Fuel costs are a lot lower, as the machine isn't tracking back and forth."

Linked in to Preventive Maintenance

As part of the John Deere WorkSight™ suite of construction-technology solutions, JDLink™ gives Garrison 24/7/365 access to valuable information on the 135D through an easy-to-use website, including machine-hour and maintenance tracking. Trex's dealer, James River Equipment, uses JDLink to provide the company with alerts of any diagnostic trouble codes and to issue timely reminders to ensure preventive maintenance is on schedule.

"Our dealer will call to tell us they got an alert that our excavator is running hot," says Garrison. "We'll go out and check the machine and, sure enough, there will be plastic film blocking the grille. This really helps us address an issue before it becomes a major problem and repair. And the dealer also lets us know when we have scheduled planned preventive maintenance, so we can make arrangements to work around it.

"With dependable machines and the support of our dealer and JDLink, our John Deere experience has been great. We've been really happy."