Plastics recycling firm eyes Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury College alum said he is “100 percent confident” that he and his business partners will establish a new enterprise in Middlebury’s industrial park that will turn tough-to-recycle plastics into such durable products as manhole covers, railroad ties and portable mats that will allow crews to work in areas with soft, wet soils.
Caleb Rick plans to make Middlebury the North American headquarters of Ekopolimer, an Ankara, Turkey-based business that has developed a process of recycling low-density polyethylene (LDPE) into a wide range of utilitarian products. The 1982 Middlebury grad has already held some preliminary talks with his alma mater about purchasing some college-owned land located off Route 7, near the Middlebury-New Haven border and close to the railroad line.
Rick’s plan calls for establishing an Ekopolimer plant on this property, as well as a rail spur to feed the facility with a steady supply of recyclable plastic to turn into the products that would then be whisked by freight train to markets throughout the country.
Rick is scheduled to show off some of Ekopolimer’s wares this week at Addison County Fair & Field Days. He hopes to get county residents well acquainted with an enterprise he said would bring around 100 jobs to the Middlebury area within the next few years.
“My plan is to use the next year to bring our product into the market to prove its viability and marketability,” Rick said during a recent interview at the Addison Independent. “This next year will be critical.”
It wasn’t that long ago that he committed his full-time attention to Ekopolimer’s quest for a North American presence.
“When I stated this three years ago, I would have described myself as a recovering lawyer who had spent his career working in the non-profit sector,” Rick said with a smile.
But his legal background and interest in reducing the nation’s waste stream came in handy as he contemplated a profound shift in his career path.
“It was like building a case,” Rick recalled.
His research led him to conclude that society’s prevailing waste disposal and recycling systems were sub-par and “dysfunctional.”
Rick was particularly concerned about what he said is the country’s poor track record in recycling low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastics, used to make such products as six-pack rings, plastic bags, beverage bottles and plastic wraps. The Environmental Protection Agency recently estimated that only around 6 percent of such material is recycled in the U.S.
“So over 90 percent of that plastic goes to the landfill,” Rick said of LDPE.
Rick saw the answer to the LDPE recycling conundrum in new technology developed by a close friend in Turkey. Then an exchange student, Ali Kemaloglu had stayed with Rick’s family for high school during the 1976-77 school year.
In 1997, Kemaloglu founded Turmaks, with a focus on innovation and new technologies. In addition to developing Ekopolimer, Turmaks has a mobile hospital business, serving clients in Africa, South America, Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
Rick has maintained a close friendship with Kemaloglu, and teamed up with him in an effort to bring Ekopolimer stateside.
Ekopolimer technology, according to Rick, has the capability “to give new life to dirty, mixed-color LDPE with an impurity tolerance up to 30 percent.” Acceptable materials within this 30 percent threshold include dirt, glass fragments, stones, grit, soil, paper, glues, product residues, cellophane, leather, cleaning pads, cotton fabrics, wood, foamed materials, carton, steel, metals, oils, organics and other plastics, according to Rick.
“It’s not only diverting material from landfills, it’s creating a superior product,” Rick said of the manufacturing process.
He described the manufacturing steps for Ekopolimer’s products: The waste plastic is crushed, washed and cut. The waste plastic and filler are then heated under pressure, and then weighed, cut and pressed into molds. The molds are cooled under pressure, with the material cooled in pools of water. Dirty water from crushing and preparation is regenerated and used again.
Using this process, Ekopolimer’s Ankara factory is already making manhole covers, transportation pallets, storm drain embrasures and ground access mats sold in Turkey, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Russia.
Ground access mats have become Ekopolimer’s primary product. They can be inter-connected and are used to provide a durable, flat surface for work crews and heavy equipment to get into — and work on — soft or wet ground.
Rick promised the company will branch out once it gains a North American foothold.
“We anticipate creating molds for a wide variety of Ekopolimer-based products, including railroad ties, floor tiles, tactile paving, decking, concrete forms, picnic tables,” Rick said. “Additionally, we will investigate inclusion of sensors embedded in our regular products thereby creating a line of ‘smart’ products.”
Ekopolimer officials called their product a great substitute for metals, plastic, cement and wood.
“It behaves like wood, iron or plastics and can be drilled, sanded, sawed and tooled using conventional tools,” reads a company narrative provided to the Independent. “It can also be used with nails, screws and staples. Fastener retention is up to two to four times that of wood; special adhesives can be used to provide excellent adhesion on all types of joints; and, it is moisture resistant and ideal for outdoor products.”
The U.S. Cross Country Ski Association, according to Rick, has approached Ekopolimer about producing some inter-connectable pallets that would bridge areas on ski courses that are barren of snow during certain times of the winter. The pallets would be covered with snow and guarantee an uninterrupted course on which skiers could practice, Rick said.
Ekopolimer is also in contact with Keene, N.H., about creating a recreational trail, using recycled material according to Rick.
The company has the capacity to recycle processed glass aggregate into sidewalk, roadway and retaining wall materials, Rick said. New London, Conn., has been incorporating recycled, processed glass aggregate into some of its public works projects for more than 20 years, according to Rick.
“I think we will be able to create sidewalk for less cost than concrete,” Rick said.
Asked why he chose Middlebury as a landing point for Ekopolimer, Rick cited the recruitment efforts of Jamie Gaucher, the town’s director of the town’s Office of Business Development & Innovation.
“I have met a fair number of people in economic development, and no one in my opinion compares to (Gaucher),” Rick said. He also cited the presence of the college, municipal services, and quality of life in Addison County. He said he will source as many recyclables as possible from Addison County and Vermont, but he also expects to import a large volume of such material in order to satisfy demand for Ekopolimer products.
Rick is targeting next year for filing an application with the town for an Ekopolimer facility.
Asked if recent violence and political unrest in Turkey could derail Ekopolimer’s plans for Middlebury, he provided the following statement:
“Without wanting to minimize the very serious geopolitical issues within Turkey, the Turkish economy has blossomed in the last two decades. Ali Kemaloglu and his extended family have played a leading role in fostering U.S.-Turkish relations for more than 50 years. Their continued business success within Turkey, and in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, offer a strong partnership to our U.S. efforts.”
Dave Donahue, special assistant to Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, confirmed the institution’s interest in Rick’s plans.
“We’ve been involved in preliminary conversations about the possibility of Ekopolimer purchasing or leasing college property along the rail line,” Donahue said. “Given our experience with Caleb and our support for economic development and recycling efforts, we are enthusiastic about Ekopolimer and the possibility of them locating in Middlebury. We also share (with the company) an environmental ethic.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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