April 30 2010 12:00 AM

Dart Container Corp.’s foam cups get the green treatment


For the world’s largest maker of foam cups and containers, 50 years of production probably equals a lot of empty coffee containers discarded by the side of the road.

But Dart Container Corp. of Mason is trying to do its part. The company is celebrating its 50th birthday by promoting its long established free-foam recycling operation at its Mason plant. There is no other such facility in Lower Michigan that can handle the recycling of expanded polystyrene, which is similar to Styrofoam — the Granger landfills in the Lansing area do not accept it, and the new state-of-the-art Michigan State University Recycling Plant can’t process it.

Dart sends semi-trucks in a 100-mile radius of Mason to pick up used foam known as “No. 6” and bring it to the plant, where it is chopped, cooked, dried and converted into tiny plastic beads. The beads are sold for conversion into picture frames, flowerpots and other plastic products. Company-wide, it processes 12 million tons of foam annually.

“In the past 10 years, the Mason recycling plant has saved 4 million pounds of post-consumer foam from going into landfills. Pretty amazing, when you think of how light foam is,” said Claudia Deschaine of the Dart Foundation.

The free drop-off site collected 500,000 tons of foam in 2009, the equivalent of 500 semi-trucks of loose foam.

That represents huge growth, Michael Westerfield, Dart’s director of recycling, said. In 2007, the plant recycled 106,000 tons.

“The public’s appetite is growing,” he said.

While the company’s earth-friendly story is still developing, it tells of a recycling industry in a country only inching its way toward sustainability.

Kerrin O’Brien, of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, said that 10 years ago, about 20 percent of trash in the state was recycled. There has been no improvement here in Michigan, she said.

But Dart is making some innovative moves that might change the picture.

Dart’s began 70 years ago as a small machine shop in Mason making plastic key cases and dog tags. But in 1960, William F. Dart and his son, William A., re-launched the company that today dominates the worldwide disposable cup business.

The pair spent six years designing a product that would give them a niche. A company in Texas had invented a six-ounce foam cup to compete against paper, but it had little insulation and was too flexible. The Darts designed a better cup and the machinery to make it. Their first 50-case order shipped April 20, 1960. They sent two cases to Jackson, Miss., and back-ordered the next 48.

Today, the little company has grown to 16th largest in Michigan with a regular listing on Fortune Magazine’s list of the top 400 private companies. Yearly revenue ranges from $400 million to more than $1 billion.

And the original two employees are now 7,500, making 600 products ranging from hinged containers (like what you’d take your Chinese food home in) and bowls, to plastic plates and disposable trays at 20 plants in the U. S., Argentina, Canada, Australia, the U.K. and Mexico.

The company has also created a foundation that gives thousands of dollars in the communities where its plants are located. Lansing’s Impression 5 Science Center a few years back received a $1 million endowment toward a new building yet to be constructed.

In honor of its anniversary, Dart will make 50 $5,000 grants in the communities that serve as homes to its production facilities and offices to K-12 public or private schools or nonprofit organizations to purchase equipment or advance programs related to science, technology, engineering or math.

Dart’s Jim Lammers told the birthday party revelers that in the 1960s, the company made a million cups a month. Today it makes that many every day. Growth was fast and the company lost efficiency.

Ken Dart, grandson of William F. Dart, instilled quality control with measuring and tracking operations. Ultimately, the company began making its own supplies so it could control the quality of its raw materials. It makes its own polymers, inks, retail film, photo polymer printing plates and offset print blankets, and its own machinery. It owns a trucking firm, DTX and the recycling plant.

Dart has developed two programs to make recycling foam easier. One is called Cups Are Recyclable, or CARE. The company provides a portable “densifier” that mashes the polystyrene into a cylinder that a Dart truck will pick up. It can mash 8,000 cups into one 15-inch, 40-pound cylinder.

In addition, a Recycle Pack, a box the size of a small washing machine that holds used cups in it, can be mailed to Dart. In the last few months, the recycling plant has received 100 such packs in the mail.

Meanwhile, Dart and Impression 5 are in talks about future displays teaching about recycling foam.

“We should be concerned about being better stewards of the planet,” executive director Erik Larson said.

Starbucks and California leading the way

Dart Container Corp. has been ahead of the industry in its concern for its green footprint. But others are catching up. Dart is working with Starbucks, which hosted the first “Cup Summit” last year in Seattle, bringing together all the entities involved in disposable cups, from manufacturing to recycling.

The second such summit was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., April 22 and 23 and Michael Westerfield, Dart’s corporate director of recycling, was there.
Starbucks has pledged that all its disposable cups will be recycled by 2015. The summit was to help make that happen.

“Not another food company has put their money where their mouth is in the same way Starbucks has,” said Westerfield, whose office is in California. “It was a good place to be.

“We’re ahead of the game here,” he said, noting that 40 cities in California are already recycling foam, partially because the state has mandated that half of the waste will be diverted from landfills.

Meanwhile, cities across the U.S. are having difficulty instituting curbside programs for cardboard, glass and aluminum, ranked first because of their quantities. Attention to foam will come after that.
But equipment can now be purchased for recycling, a different scenario from when Dart had to design its own 20 years ago. And new markets are opening.

Nepco Industrial Co., a South Korean manufacturer, has opened a plant in Chino, Calif., to make high-end picture frame moldings from recycled expanded polystyrene. Previously Nepco turned the polystyrene into pellets and sent them to its manufacturing facilities in South Korea.

Another California company, Timbron International, converts polystyrene to interior moldings.
Meanwhile, a new law in Vermont requires residents to pay for trash pick up, but recycling pick-ups are free.

Good intentions are of little value until a community system is in place, he said.

“The tide is beginning to turn,” Westerfield said.