Plastics for a Changing World
CHELMSFORD -- A steady whir of machinery filled the large production room at Waddington North America’s Stuart Road manufacturing facility, while employees ensured the single-use plastic plates, cups and utensils emerging from the machines were packaged properly.
“This is a molding machine that is taking resin pellets that are stored in silos outside of the building,” Rob Ayles, director of operations at WNA’s Chelmsford location, explained to town officials during a Dec. 18 tour of the facility. “They are pumped into each machine, the pellets are melted to 500 degrees, and injected into a cavity where the part is formed.”
Once cooled, the items -- clear plastic cups, in this instance -- go on to be packaged, he said. Some are first printed with designs as ordered by clients, such as the Masters green cup with the little yellow golf flag -- one of their most famous products, Ayles said.
“We make all of those here in Chelmsford,” he said.
WNA, part of The Waddington Group, has been in Chelmsford for more than 40 years. What’s different now is its ownership.
Earlier this year, WNA, once part of New Jersey-based Newell Brands, was acquired by the large South Carolina-headquartered packaging company Novolex, part of The Carlyle Group.
“When we acquire, we’re looking for brands that match our values,” Novolex Senior Director of Sustainability Phil Rozenski said in a presentation ahead of the tour. “We’re looking for companies where we see an opportunity to help them with our experience to be a more sustainable brand, where we see there’s an opportunity for innovation.”
Novolex has 62 facilities across North America and Europe, with a total of about 10,000 employees across its brands, Rozenski said. The Chelmsford facility employs about 350 workers, but that number can rise to as much as 650 during peak production seasons, Ayles said.
Sustainability might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of single-use plastic products and packaging, but Novolex has been working to change that. Rozenski said the company looks at things like bans of plastic bags and other plastic products as an opportunity.
“What we’re hearing is the common message that people want more sustainable products, and so that’s why we’re putting a lot of money and research into recycling, recycled content and other things to help make our products more sustainable,” he said. “Regardless of whether people view reusable bags, paper bags, or plastic bags as the best solution, we think whatever product they choose, it should be the most sustainable version.”
Rozenski said the company believes in the “circular economy.” Part of that involves increasing the recycled content in its paper and plastic products and making them more recyclable, or compostable depending on what’s right for the marketplace, he said.
While many organizations were shipping recyclable materials to China, Rozenski said, Novolex used domestic recycling for its own processes, and so wasn’t impacted when China recently changed its policies governing what it will accept.
He said the company realized about 15 years ago “the problems with the ecosystem of recycling” and built two of the early recycling facilities for plastic bags, located in Indiana and Wisconsin. Novolex now works with nine other companies to recycle plastic bags, and uses 120 million pounds of recycled bags and film per year, Rozenski said.
“This is our first big success story, and what we try to do with all of our brands,” he said.
In addition to using post-industrial content, the company is trialing post-consumer content and aims to put its first products using it in the marketplace in 2019, Rozenski said.
“We look to make Chelmsford the home of sustainable polystyrene,” said WNA Vice President of Food Service Operations Ken Meyers.
He pointed to WNA’s Reflections Cutlery, which he said is currently made of virgin polystyrene with a coating of stainless steel that gives it a high-end look.
“Probably in the next four months, 50 percent of that is going to be post-consumer,” Meyers said.
He said they’re also coming out with a new line of plastic cups that will be made primarily of polystyrene instead of polypropylene.They’ll have the same look, feel and physical properties the consumer is looking for, “but out of a material that is less invasive, less of a problem,” Meyers said.
Ayles said the company has $5.2 million in capital investments planned at the facility for the next year, and hopes to foster relationships with local trade schools and colleges to create a “feeder system” for new employees. He said the idea is to recruit students for internships and apprenticeships where they can get hands-on skills, and “give them an opportunity to come out of school at a higher-paying job.”
Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.