Mebane, N.C., foam insulation firm reduces landfill output to nearly nothing

Armacell, a manufacturer of foam insulation, used to send millions of pounds of waste to the Orange Regional Landfill. But the light, porous foam created big problems, literally.

Sep. 22—MEBANE, N.C. — Armacell, a manufacturer of foam insulation, used to send millions of pounds of waste to the Orange Regional Landfill. But the light, porous foam created big problems, literally.

"It's foam rubber," Solid Waste Operations Manager Paul Spire explained. "You can't compact it, you can't break it up. You can run over it, but as soon as you get off of it, it springs back to its original size."

After trash is compacted and buried at the landfill, bulldozers drive over it. But when they drove over the foam, they were sinking in the spongy material. Then strips of foam would become entangled in their tracks and would trail behind the vehicles.

So in 1997 landfill managers asked their counterparts at Armacell to stop sending the company's waste there.

When the Armacell plant opened eight years ago in Mebane, waste material accounted for roughly 20 percent of its total output, or about 5 million pounds per year.

The landfill ban posed a huge challenge, but Armacell has successfully reduced its output of scrap material to almost nothing.

Plant managers tried a series of reduction strategies, including recycling waste in-house by incorporating it back into freshly created foam. They abandoned that process because it produced too much foam that didn't meet specifications and that had to be disposed. The company also tried using local recycling companies, but that didn't work out.

Mike Resetar, Armacell's North American quality manager, said that no single change has accounted for the shift.

"It's a little bit here, a little bit there," Resetar said.

One major change in the manufacturing process that reduced waste was standardizing the way the line makes the foam. Resetar said there were inconsistencies in the way workers operated the line, which created a variety of problems that led to increased scrap. The company wrote down a uniform set of procedures for operating the line, and that cut down on waste dramatically.

Armacell successfully undertook an International Organization for Standardization business certification process that, as Resetar described, involves "constant improvement and documentation."

The process of applying for the ISO certification spurred more improvements to the company's business practices that have reduced the amount of waste from the plant.

"The process forces you into a box that keeps you always asking the question, 'What do we do better?' " Resetar said.

Waste is now less than 2 percent of the plant's total output. Armacell gives the leftovers to a company in Hickory that grinds them into a powder and uses it to make carpet backing.

Located just off Interstate 85/40 in Mebane, Armacell manufactures foam insulation products that line pipes, create insulation, and are used in the automotive, construction, packaging and furniture industries. The company has 17 factories in 11 countries. Its North American headquarters is in Mebane.

Holger Johann, Armacell's general manager for the North American insulation business, said the manufacturer moved to North Carolina from Massachusetts in 1995 for logistical reasons. Armacell needed an existing building in a central location that could be fitted out quickly, and they found one in Mebane.

"The best opportunity for us was here in North Carolina," Johann said.

He cited a favorable labor market and state support as additional reasons for the relocation.

Armacell now has four buildings in Mebane, including a 180,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center. The Mebane facility employs 240 workers.

To see more of The Herald-Sun, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to (c) 2004, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.