At Greenbuild, Phila. plastic a hot item

The sign at the gate of Richard S. Burns & Co. Inc., of Phila., makes it clear that this enterprise looks upon trash as a revenue-producing item. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Among the construction, materials and technology firms presenting on the long aisles at last week's busy Greenbuild show that filled the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Richard S. Burns & Co. offered a Philly example of the evolution of a lowly trade into a hot sector with expanding markets. 

Burns has grown from a demolition landfilller with a couple of trucks in the 1970s to a sprawling operation that employs 65 up at 4300 Rising Sun Ave., where a thriving downtown-style "green roof " of sedum reduces the drainage from blocks of concrete truck pads and sorting lines (for iron and steel, copper and brass, several colors of stone, brick and concrete rubble and glass).

Allen Burns, son of the founder, told me what's new: "Plastics. Vinyl siding, vinyl fencing, HDPE -- that's high density polyethylene, like you get in milk crates -- PVC pipe. And we're starting to do clothing," like Dad's old polyester pants and stretch shirts. The kind of stuff consumers sort to have hauled away is suddenly in demand from commercial recyclers, too.

Where's the market? Burns and lieutenants Bill Hudome and Bob Beaty are reluctant to name names, since theirs is a highly competitive business. Generically, says Hudome, buyers include "the people who make recycled lumber, people who make milk crates, anyone using a percentage of virginal material and a percentage of recycling."

With shipping costs rising with fuel prices, and with competitive foreign demand rising, U.S. extruders who used to buy product abroad are sourcing more and more of their plastic to East Coast recyclers, they say -- so much that Burns has added a new baler to "push more product out the door. The [buyers] have been saying, 'Get it to us in a presentable package.' So we're shipping it baled up like paper now. It's cheaper this way."

The baler can ship a ton of cardboard or a simlilarly-sized bale of 1,400 pounds of plastic "every two minutes," Burns told me. "We have enough volume to run plastic an hour or two a day," and cardboard the rest. "The buyers are sending us trucks."

There are still plenty of metal and building-materials buyers around Philadelphia, some of them encouraged by the recent sale, by the Balzano family, of the Camden Iron & Metal recycling operation off the Platt Bridge to multinational recycler EMR, which also has operations in New Castle, Del.

But plastics is growing fast. What's next? "We're looking to buy granulation equipment," which would allow denser, more efficient plastic shipping, Burns concluded.