OC Register Article on STYROFOAM

Jim Walker, owner of Olympic Wire and Equipment Inc.in Newport Beach, spends a large portion of his time talking to customers.

Jim Walker, owner of Olympic Wire and Equipment Inc.in Newport Beach, spends a large portion of his time talking to customers.

He sells waste handling and recycling equipment and he wants to know how customers use this expensive equipment and what else Olympic can do for them.

"The worst thing for a small business owner is to be trapped in a bubble, not knowing what exists out there," Walker says.

His customers are retailers, printers and other large users of paper, cardboard and plastic. They continually asked Walker what else they could do to reduce the amount of trash they sent to landfills.

By listening to his customers and continually researching the latest in recycling, Walker has found a profitable addition to his $10 million core business.

Paper and cardboard balers have been around a long time, and Olympic is one of the few distributors to carry multiple brands. But Walker didn’t have a solution for the Styrofoam packaging materials piling up in customers’ warehouses.

Companies spend tens of thousands of dollars a month to dump Styrofoam into landfills, where it sits for thousands of years because it doesn’t break down. There hasn’t been a market for used Styrofoam because it’s so bulky that shipping is uneconomical.

Styrofoam is 95 percent air, so 900 pounds of the plastic fills a 53-foot-long trailer.

Walker went looking for a solution.

His industry background helped, he said. He and his father owned a company that sold baling wire, which they sold in the mid-1990s. Walker was familiar with many types of equipment that used wire, so he started Olympic to be a distributor. It has become the largest seller of waste handling and recycling equipment on the West Coast.

For Styrofoam, he found a couple of approaches to compacting it for easier shipment: melting it or compressing it until the inert gas escapes.

The former can release styrene, which can cause cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Walker found a Danish machine, the Runi, which densifies Styrofoam to 1/50th the original size. A one-foot cube weighs 19 pounds, he said.

The Runi, which comes in three sizes, isn’t cheap: $15,000 to $64,000. But trash fees are so high that customers can recoup their investment in less than a year, Walker said.

One example is Linder’s Furniture, a 10-store retailer based in Garden Grove.

Furniture is packed in Styrofoam for light-weight protection, and Linder’s Garden Grove warehouse was spending $1,000 a week to send the packing material and other nonrecyclables to landfills, said Mark Kantor, director of operations.

At a trade show he saw Olympic’s booth that included the Runi densifier and bought one.

It has reduced Linder’s trash hauling to $500 every other week, he said. "After paying the equipment lease and labor (to operate the densifier) I have positive cash flow of $2,500 a month. That’s before I sell the (densified Styrofoam) for about $1,000 a month.

"Plus I like that we are doing our little bit for the planet," he added.

Now that Styrofoam can be more economically shipped, companies like Timbron International in the Bay Area buy used Styrofoam to make decorative molding. Others turn it into packing peanuts or housing insulation, Walker said. They pay about 17 cents to 25 cents a pound.

This prospect appeals to the city of Los Angeles. Rather than ban it as Oakland and Santa Monica have done, which is difficult to enforce, the city has contracted with Bestway Recyclingto accept Styrofoam from residential trash collections.

The city had been paying $30 a ton to dispose of used Styrofoam. Now it will be paid $25 a ton.

Bestway is using Olympic’s Runi densifiers for the program, which it is negotiating to expand throughout Los Angeles County.

Bestway hopes to break even the first year and start turning a profit on the Styrofoam recycling in the second year, according to Chief Financial Officer David Cho.

Olympic has sold 20 Runi Styrofoam densifiers in a year. However, he doesn’t expect that niche to eclipse Olympic’s other waste handling business, which totals $10 million a year.

"It’s a nice part of the business, but every year our (recycling) industry keeps growing as more things need to be recycled," Walker said. "More companies want to recycle, both because of the costs (of disposal) and to be environmentally friendly. So there will always be something new."

He figures he’ll find out about it by listening to his customers.

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