Extra cleaning steps and new press technology enable CanFibre to turn urban waste wood into value-added MDF.

By Barrett Kilmer

 

Outside CanFibre’s new plant in Riverside, CA, a Caterpillar tractor pushes wood scraps into a mammoth pile that threatens to overshadow the nearby mountains. The wood, which would otherwise end up in landfills, will be turned into MDF in the company’s state-of-the-art, $120 million plant.

While recycling the wood will help Southern California landfills reduce their solid waste streams, CanFibre executives hope it will also help increase the company’s revenue stream.

To accomplish this, CanFibre plans to promote its MDF’s “green” pedigree and to emphasize some of the product strengths that company representatives say result from its new pressing technology, such as high fiber quality and moisture-resistance.

Operations manager Larry Tinker says the company and the Southern California region have a shared interest in the project. “There is a demand for MDF and urban areas have a wood supply that they need to deal with.”

Green Machine

The new plant is designed to use up to 400 tons per day of old pallets, construction and demolition wood, and other wood waste, according to Tinker. The wood comes mostly from institutional commercial sources that have special bins for depositing unwanted wood scraps.

CanFibre plans to convert these scraps into more than 78 million square feet (3/4-in. basis) of panel product annually when the operation is fully ramped-up later this year. By the company’s own estimates, using post-consumer wood waste instead of virgin timber will save between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of trees per year.

Clearing the Air

Another key component in CanFibre’s “green” approach is in the plant’s pollution-control systems. The company had to spend a great deal of money in order to locate the plant in the Los Angeles area, where air quality is relatively low and governmental regulations are relatively high. Ken Tavoda, manager of engineering and construction, says despite the regulations, which necessitated the installation of a $5.5 million thermo-catalytic oxidizer, the company has had a good relationship with the district that oversees them.

“We are a unique facility for the district. We put out pollution below current measuring equipment’s allowable limits,” he explains. “They have a range of 1 to 10 and we come in at less than 1 so we are considered outside the normal allowable limits.”

Tavoda and others at the plant like to say that the air leaving their plant on a smoggy summer day is actually cleaner than the air taken in, though they admit the claim is perhaps exaggerated.

Environmentally responsible products are growing more and more popular with consumers, according to president and CEO Chris Carl, but he says the products stand on their own merit.

“We have found at trade shows and from talking to people that

conservation and pollution control are things people care about,” says Carl. “Not things they want to pay a lot of extra money for, but all things being equal, if they can get their hands on products that make them feel better and don’t cost them more, they’ll do it. So when we call our MDF ‘AllGreen,’ we don’t want to get paid a big premium because we are recycled. We want to offer a high-quality product at a competitive price.”

 

     
 
CanFibre’s Parent Company Sees Greenbacks in Green Movement

CanFibre is a subsidiary of Dedham. MA-based Kafus Industries Ltd. Kafus has several other facilities that merge ecological concerns with commercial viability. Kafus’ other operating subsidiaries include:

• Kenaf Industries of South Texas, which will convert the kenaf plant’s fibers into newsprint.

• Kafus Bio-Composites, which produces natural fiber composite mat and panel products for automobile interior and trim components.

• Fortra Fiber Cement, which produces fiber cement siding and flooring products. The material looks like wood and has performance characteristics superior to wood and vinyl products, the company says.

• Hyaton Co. Inc., which converts animal waste into pathogen-free slow release organic fertilizer.

All of Kafus’ plants are built as turnkey operations by outside firms, who manage them under the supervision of the subsidiaries. The Toronto-based CanFibre Group contracted with Stone & Webster Engineering Co. to build the Riverside-CA plant and operate it for the next 10 years.

Operations manager Larry Tinker is the only CanFibre employee permanently stationed at the plant. It is his job to coordinate with the operating company to make sure the plant is run in CanFibre’s best interests.

“This has allowed us to bring in a company that has operational experience,” Tinker says. “They already have HR support, a benefits package, and training guidelines and support. So instead of being a brand new company we were able to recruit the kind of people we wanted to with a good benefits package.”

Another characteristic CanFibre shares with the other subsidiaries is a long-term purchase agreement. CanFibre has an agreement with Timber Products of Springfield, OR, who will purchase and distribute 100 percent of the plant’s production.

 

Low-Cost Materials

CanFibre buys the waste wood for a small fee from two local salvaging firms, giving it a significant cost advantage over plants that use virgin wood. Transportation costs and delivery time are also much less since the wood is not coming from rural forest lands.

The plant was designed so that it would tap into only 10 percent of Los Angeles County’s available waste wood supply. That does not include the surrounding counties, where CanFibre actually gets most of its wood.

“We don’t foresee wood supply as ever being a problem,” says Tavoda.

The Cleaning Process

Although CanFibre’s MDF process is “ninety-five to 99 percent the same as any other for making MDF,” according to Carl, using urban waste wood presents some unique challenges for CanFibre. One challenge is extracting the metal, plastic, dirt and other impurities from the wood. CanFibre’s plant has an entire building dedicated to this process.

Whereas other MDF plants may use a percentage of waste material, CanFibre is the first to use 100% recycled material and therefore must take extra steps to eliminate debris.

After the scraps are sent through primary and secondary hogs, the small pieces are separated from the “accepts” by a series of oscillating and vibrating screens. Accepts, which measure 1/4 in. by 1/4 in. by 1 in., are then sent through a series of three overhead magnets and four head-pulling magnets, which remove metal objects from the wood.

The chips are then taken by conveyor to a paddle wheel that keeps them submerged under water. The chips float to the surface and grit, dirt, sand, rocks and other unwanted materials drop out.

“We’ve got two cleaning systems and we’re adding two more,” says Tavoda. “We’ve got magnets and screens and a wash system, and we are going to add a chip-cleaning system and an eddy current. Most plants have magnets to help clean up the stuff or a washing system. Then again, nobody else uses 100% urban waste either.”

Carl agrees with Tavoda’s assessment that CanFibre’s meticulous chip cleaning is one of the things that makes the company unique. He also points out that the wood is “already nicely separated” by the time it reaches the plant.

“The supply we use is not a bunch of garbage and banana peels, it’s pretty good looking wood,” Carl says. “But there is a lot of metal and other stuff in there and we do a huge amount of work to get all that out. We do so much work that we feel we end up with a cleaner fiber than most MDF mills who use virgin wood.”

 

After the panels exit the steam-injection press, they are sent to a Globe cooling wheel, then are sanded, trimmed and cut into 4-ft by 8-ft panels.

The Steam Press

CanFibre faces another challenge stemming from its use of recycled wood.

“Urban wood is mixed species, which makes it very difficult for a conventional UF resin to perform consistently,” Tinker explains. “With the use of phenol-based resins we are able to use the mixed species, but the phenol needs high temperature to cure.”

CanFibre uses a patented steam press process that is able to achieve the high temperatures necessary to cure the resin.

“The steam injection allows the company to get a very quick cure and a very short press time,” Tinker adds. “While a standard MDF plant may have a cycle time of six to seven minutes, we are able to cure the panels in four.”

The phenol resin and steam-injection press have some other benefits, according to Carl. As a result of the high amount of energy used in the press, the MDF a high quality of fiber that is the same density throughout, he says.

“Most MDF gets over-cured at the outer edges and tends to be quite soft in the center,” Carl says. “The fact that AllGreen is just as hard in the center as it is on the surface means that paint adheres more evenly and tool wear is improved.”

Carl also says that the phenol-based resin improves moisture-resistance levels.

Marketing Plans

CanFibre’s basic MDF board will be comparable in price to other MDF, but because the plant is relatively small, Carl says CanFibre will focus on producing value-added products, including an AllGreen MR panel with added moisture-resistance for niche markets such as kitchen and bathroom cabinetry and countertops. Also planned are fire-rated and ultra-light versions of the AllGreen MDF. The company, which produced its first run of the flagship AllGreen MDF in September, plans to begin shipment of the moisture-resistant and fire-retardant versions in late October.

A second plant is currently under construction in Lackawanna, NY, and is scheduled to be up and running in the spring of 2000. CanFibre has also obtained permits to build its first European operation, which will be located in Amsterdam, near European furniture manufacturers.

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