Macon’s Freudenberg recycles plastic bottles into roofing material
By RODNEY MANLEY
On the floor of the Freudenberg Texbond plant in south Macon, dozens of 1-ton sacks of plastic flakes — chipped from bottles of Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and other soft drinks, along with a few amber beer empties — sit in rows divided by color.
The brown bags are from Canada, the green from Mexico.
“We just can’t get enough in the States, so we have to buy it from other places,” said CEO Richard Shaw.
Every day, Freudenberg’s Macon plant recycles 1 million drink bottles into polyester fiber, which is then processed into 500-pound rolls of roofing material. As many as 20 truckloads of the rolls are shipped out each day to roofing manufacturers across the United States and Canada.
The $50 million plant began operations in 1986. A $15 million expansion added a second production line in 2007. The plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but Shaw said it could make even more product if people would only recycle more.
Of the 5 billion pounds of “virgin” PET (polyethylene terephthalate) processed into bottles last year, only about 1.4 billion was recycled, Shaw said. The rest likely wound up in landfills.
Georgia recycles at a rate of only 3 percent, he said.
“We’re doing a lousy job recycling,” said Shaw. “And more than half is going to China, where they make textiles, shirts, bedspreads, and send it back to America. We’re putting it on ships and sending it to China. … It’s defeating the purpose.”
The end result is a shortage for manufacturers, who are forced to use virgin PET, which is more costly to make.
The recycling process
The process at Freudenberg begins with inspection of the bottle flake, with checks for labels and caps. The flake is loaded in giant mixers to remove pieces that are too big or too small.
“It ensures that it’s all the same size so it melts the same way,” said Shaw.
The flake is then dried to remove all moisture and sent to an extruder for processing. It’s melted into a thick molten polymer and forced through thousands of tiny holes to form the fiber.
The fibers are sent through cooling chambers, where 2,000 strands of fibers, each the size of a human hair and barely visible to the human eye, pass through each chamber.
“We have to get them from here,” Shaw said, pointing to the top of one of the clear, cylindrical chambers, “to the bottom without them touching,”
The fiber, which now resembles light green cotton candy, is combed and stacked to make a thick web. From there it runs through a machine where 100,000 needles with barbs — 200,000 on the newer production line — pump up and down, piercing and entangling the fiber to give it strength and tenacity,
The fiber emerges from the big green machine as a mat. After a heat stabilization process, binding material is added, and the mats are rolled and ready for shipping.
The plant makes 100,000 pounds of fiber each day,
The material is used as waterproofing underlayment on flat-roofed buildings, mostly commercial and industrial structures. As a result, the company has grown despite the recession.
“If you’ve got a hospital or a hotel, and it leaks, you’ve got to fix it,” Shaw said. “That way, even in this economy, we’ve had good years.”
Freudenberg is the largest supplier of polyester nonwoven for roofing and construction. The company’s biggest challenge is the availability of post-consumer bottles.
Company officials would like Georgia and other states to adopt deposit laws to improve collection rates of PET bottles. They also want to see less PET scrap exported.
“It would be much better for the U.S., much better for the economy,” Shaw said. “The problem is we’re sending all the recycling jobs to China. They can do it a lot cheaper in China.”
To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.
Headquartered in Weinheim, Germany, Freudenberg & Co. is 161 years old. The Macon plant, Freudenberg Texbond, opened in 1986.
The company employs 32,000 employees, with an annual payroll of almost $2 billion.
The Macon facility employs more than 100 workers, with an annual payroll of $5 million.
The 65-acre operation in Allied Industrial Park represents an investment of more than $50 million in plant and equipment.
The Macon plant recycles more than 1 million plastic bottles each day to produce polyester fiber, most of which is used to make roofing material.
The average tenure of a Macon employee is 10 years, with many of its “associates” having more than 20 years of continuous employment.
The company’s Freudenberg Foundation built schools in Southeast Asia after the 2004 tsunami and rebuilt villages and schools in China after the 2009 earthquake.