When you recycle a plastic milk jug in Minnesota, chances are good that it will travel to the Southwest corner of the state, reaching its final destination at Bedford Technology in Worthington. To make its recycled plastic lumber products, the company takes in about 16 million pounds of recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic every year. If you’re counting, that’s about 128 million milk jugs. Stacked end to end, they would reach across the continental U.S. approximately seven and a half times.
Since 1998, Bedford Technology has been on a mission to breathe new life into old plastic. The company is an outgrowth of Bedford Industries, Inc., which began in 1966 as a wire twist tie manufacturer before expanding its offerings to product closures, fasteners, ties and other items. When Bedford Technology branched off from Bedford Industries, the plastic lumber side of the business was small—about 30 percent of sales. The remaining 70 percent were attributable to its food packaging machinery division, which makes custom automation for applying twist tie closures to food items.
Though both sides have experienced growth, the plastic lumber division has ballooned to comprise more than 90 percent of sales, with revenues increasing 20-fold over the past 14 years. To date, the company has sold to customers in the U.S., Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and multiple countries in Europe and the Middle East.
President Brian Larsen attributes much of the plastic lumber division’s fast-growing success to the wide spectrum of products it can supply, from boardwalks, pedestrian bridges, benches and picnic tables, to playgrounds, speed bumps and parking curbs. Though its main market is outdoor infrastructure projects like playgrounds and parks, the company also serves the marine market with dock and pier fendering systems, designed to absorb a boat’s kinetic energy as it heads into port.
Transforming recycled plastic into brand-new products begins with a grinding process that breaks post-consumer material into smaller pieces. Pieces are then washed and ground into even finer particles, called “flakes.” The flakes then receive colorants and UV additives before being either extruded to the correct length of board, or injected into a mold to create a particular shape. For applications that require additional strength and stiffness, Bedford mixes chopped fiberglass into the plastic material. Its strongest product, called BarForce®, incorporates a fiber reinforced polymer rebar throughout the length of each board.
Apart from a varied menu of products, the “green” nature of Bedford’s plastic products has also bolstered its escalating popularity. Bedford’s plastic lumber is 100 percent recycled, sourced from local recycling centers. And products at the end of their life cycles can be recycled again, promoting a “cradle to cradle” approach to manufacturing that Larsen says is a “huge part” of Bedford’s company culture.
The company’s plastic lumber is also a more durable alternative to chemically treated wood—enough to grant customers a 50-year warranty.
“It has excellent longevity. It doesn’t rot, it doesn’t mold, bugs don’t eat it,” Larsen says. The UV additives also protect its color from fading over years of sunlight exposure.
To expand further into the marine market, the company spent much of 2012 setting up a second shop in Winchester, Va. that specializes in longer plastic board lengths. Larsen anticipates the expansion will contribute to a 15 percent sales jump this year, with increases both in the U.S. and abroad.