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Waste eater: Poulan Industries' common sense reduces hazardous wastes, saves money.

Waste Eater

Officials at the Poulan Weed Eater plant in Nashville are still shaking their heads about how wrong they were. But they're also chuckling.

"At first we thought it would cost a bundle. But practically everything we've done has saved us money," Personnel Director Larry M. Hoover says of the program Poulan began three years ago to minimize and eliminate wastes, especially hazardous ones.

"Not only are we cleaning up the environment and protecting our reputation in the community, but we're saving money," he continues, his voice carrying that "Believe It or Not" tone.

Formerly a major generator of hazardous wastes, Poulan now qualifies as a small quantity generator (2,200 or fewer pounds a month) with only one or two drums a month of trichloroethelene still-bottoms having to be hauled off for incineration. Poulan's policy is to incinerate all hazardous wastes that can't be recycled.

Charles Martin, director of the Arkansas Federation of Water and Air Users, says some big chemical companies with plants in Arkansas - Dow, Eastman, Ethyl and Du Pont - are leading the waste reduction trend, but that among other industries, "Poulan is right at the top" along with Falcon Jet, AT&T, and Baxter Health Care in Mountain Home.

Martin's organization is the voice of industry on environmental affairs as it keeps its 273-member firms abreast of regulatory changes and helps them comply. It sponsors at least three seminars a year, and waste reduction/elimination is on the agenda at each, occasionally including three-hour case studies.

Both Martin and Mike Bates, chief of the state Pollution Control and Ecology Department's Hazardous Waste Division, say industry's push to reduce wastes began when Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency tough new mandates in the reauthorized Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1984. Martin and Bates see the trend accelerating in the 1990s - from necessity.

Disposal Dilemma

Land disposal of hazardous wastes without detoxification is virtually banned. There are fewer disposal sites and treatment facilities. The cost of landfilling wastes has soared to $250 a metric ton from only $10 to $15 in the late 1970s. And the charge for incinerating organic hazardous wastes has climbed to $1,200 a metric ton from about $500 during the same period, Martin says.

PC&E's Bates, whose division has applied for a $300,000 EPA grant to work with Arkansas industries to eliminate wastes before they're created, says "a change in the corporate philosophy is beginning to evolve about the proper niche in the structure for environmental engineering" and that Poulan reflects this philosophy.

"More and more of them are being placed in positions where they aren't supervised by and don't have to answer to production because that's where the head-butting occurs." It's one of those fine points that are learned when something ceases to be a trend and becomes a necessity for survival.

The 1,000 workers in Poulan's southwest Arkansas plant turn out 2 1/2 to 3 million products annually - all of Poulan's gasoline-powered chainsaws, Weed Eaters and blowers and even many Craftsman line-trimmers and blowers for Sears. The castings are bought for the parts, but they are cut, shaped and assembled at the plant. Alcohol is used to clean oil from some of the parts. The dirty alcohol was sent to Ensco at El Dorado to be incinerated at a cost of $275 to $300 a drum.

This stopped two years ago when a simple contraption was installed on the plant floor. An employee now collects the oily alcohol and dumps it into a 15-gallon drum. The oily alcohol is heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and the resulting vapor circulates through a device that looks strangely like a car radiator with an air cooler or fan attached. This separates the oil and the alcohol and both are reused.

One man spends 30 minutes three times a week operating the device, which saved the company $16,000 in its first year.

"It's so simple it's beyond comprehension why everyone isn't doing it," says Poulan's environmental safety engineer, Jerry Wilcox, who designed the cleaner/separator.

A Utah native with a geology degree, Wilcox came to Poulan on Halloween 1986. Since then, he and three others in his department have treated Poulan to a 99 percent reduction in its wastes.

Waste Elimination

Hoover says the 14-year-old plant in Nashville was posed to enter the waste reduction arena when the Shreveport-based Poulan was bought from Emerson Electric Co. in December 1986 by Swedish-owned Electrolux. Like Gibson, Tappan, White Westinghouse, Eureka, Kelvinator and Roper Lawnmowers, Poulan became a division of White Consolidated Industries, which is the holding company for Electrolux's U.S. properties.

"We had always had a person responsible for identifying, collecting and disposing of hazardous materials. Our mentality was to handle it properly" rather than not using it at all, Hoover recalls. A young engineer named Doug Mix was given this job, and he developed the concept of going the next step - to elimination.

Becoming part of White "gave us a big boost in the arm" to carry out the program because the holding company" had a strong environmental safety engineer with full authority," Hoover recalls. Subsequently, White snapped up Mix, moved him to Cleveland, Ohio, and made him its environmental safety chief.

Wilcox developed Mix's concept with these and other projects:

*Tiny slivers of aluminum called "chips" fall away from the castings as parts are made. They are covered with $2-a-gallon mineral oil used to cool the machines. The chips - 20,000 pounds of them a month - have always been collected and sold for recycling.

Now the chips are put into pans that are placed in a centrifuge under a special lid. As the machine spins, the oil flies through slots in the lid and into a sump. A second centrifuge spins the oil at 3,000 rpms, removing 25 to 30 pounds of sludge a week. The oil, about 1,000 gallons a month, travels back to the plant through overhead pipes to be used again. The clean chips bring higher prices from recyclers. Savings: $50,000 a year.

The Human Touch

Wilcox believes the system is the only one of its kind in Arkansas. "If anyone disagrees, I hope they write me," he says.

*In the past, magnesium castings used by Poulan were "pickled" in an acidic solution to prevent corrosion. This entire process has been eliminated because Wilcox found and substituted a Dow-made alloy of high purity magnesium that doesn't need "pickling." Savings: $80,000 a year.

*Rubber grips were soaked in toluene, a hazardous chemical, before being placed on Weed Eater handle bars. When the toluene dried, the grips were stuck to the bars. Now the grips are softened in hot water, blown up like balloons with an air hose, and slipped over the shafts where they dry - and stick. Savings: about $40,000 a year.

*Wet spray paint has been replaced with cheaper, cleaner and superior powder paint. Parts hung on a conveyor are heated to 220 degrees Fahrenheit and receive a negative electrostatic charge. They then are sprayed with fine powder paint carrying a positive electrostatic charge. The paint melts, forming a baked enamel finish. "We're talking static cling here," Wilcox quips.

Poulan tackled its biggest waste producing processes first, but "we work on everything at the same time," Wilcox says, adding, "I'm working on 53 different things right now" and eight of them are major projects similar to those described. Industries that think waste reduction can just be tacked on to someone's existing job are making a major mistake, he warns.

At the same time, Wilcox insists that every project carried out at Poulan was "simple" even though the research and designs for them fill nine bound notebooks on a shelf near his desk. "Simple" because all involved using known technologies that were applied in new ways.

"We have the technology; the holdback is the human element," he says. Wilcox's assistant, Richey Lagrone, elaborates: "All it takes is getting people to listen."

This is a lot, though, and it is why Wilcox says a commitment to waste reduction/elimination "has to come from the top." Without the "total support" of Mike McCann, Poulan vice president for operations, "this wouldn't have happened," he declares.

Wilcox says it's also important that Poulan's environmental safety engineering department answers to the personnel director.

Waste reduction/elimination involves change, so "you must have a team effort, with help from maintenance, engineering, production, tool and die, and accounting. Larry (Hoover) works with everybody as personnel director, and he gets the cooperation we need."

Carol Griffee is a free-lance writer living in Little Rock.
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Author:Griffee, Carol
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 23, 1990
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