Westmark Makes Molehills Out of Mountains

The Tacoma, WA, company's comprehensive recycling program virtually eliminates its contributions to the local landfill.

By Renee Stern

 

Waste material, particularly wood waste, is a costly problem for many wood products manufacturers. But at Westmark Products Inc., a Tacoma, WA-based manufacturer of institutional and commercial casework, waste is meeting its match in virtually every imaginable way.

Since 1997, each of Westmark's 200 employees, from president Dennis Milsten on down, has buckled down to help make the 15-year-old company's comprehensive recycling program work. The program's success led Westmark Products to receive a 1998 recycling award from the Association of Washington Business.

In addition, the program's success is further supported by these numbers: 1,790 tons or 99 percent of all solid waste that was generated by the company's production and office operations in 1999 was recycled in some way. And, Milsten says,

Westmark has achieved this dramatic reduction in landfilling with the help of Corporate Recycling Services (CRS), a Tacoma-based consulting firm. In March 1997, Westmark entered into a five-year contract with CRS through which it pays the consulting firm 40 percent of its monthly gross savings gained from recycling.

On average, Milsten says the monthly savings comes to $5,000, which still leaves Westmark ahead by $3,000 after paying CRS's consulting fee. "The cost is worth it because of the amount of work they put into it," Milsten says. He adds that Westmark had tried recycling on its own, but frustration set in when each new market the company found either disappeared or became uneconomical to continue pursuing.

Tipping Fees Spur Efforts

Skyrocketing landfill charges have been the catalyst for Westmark's herculean recycling efforts.

According to Bob O'Neal, president of CRS, local landfill tipping fees have risen roughly 400 percent since 1992, reaching about $93 a ton most recently. "No other cost in business is going up to that extent."

Adds Milsten, "Hauling waste to a landfill is a terribly ugly way to spend your money. You buy raw materials and then have to spend money to get rid of what you don't use."

Since initiating its contract with CRS, Westmark has gone from filling two 30-cubic-yard waste containers every other day to filling a single 6-cubic-yard container once a week.

Finding uses for recovered sawdust and wood scrap has been the biggest factor in the program's success. Because Westmark uses a large amount of particleboard, laminate and plywood in its casework, finding a way to recycle the wood waste was not easy.

CRS's novel approach, however, involves grinding and blending sawdust and scrap with other soils to create a marketable topsoil. One of the hidden paybacks Westmark receives in its contract with CRS is that it has been able to forgo having to purchase a wood grinder. All waste reduction grinding is done at Fife Sand & Gravel, a local firm that CRS also works with on this and other recycling projects.

 

Westmark's custom capabilities are typified by this musical storage cabinet for Ballard High School in Seattle.

Susan Kelley, office manager at Fife Sand & Gravel, says the Tacoma area company grinds wood scrap from cabinet shops and construction sites into smaller particles. After the sawdust and ground particles age for a period, they are mixed with soil and sold to local landscapers. Any pieces that are too large for mixing as soil are sent to a local steam plant and incinerated, Kelley adds.

Recycling More Than Just Wood

Westmark has not been content to only contain its wood waste disposal costs. The company has taken aim at reducing waste through recycling and reclamation wherever possible.

For example, pallets used to ship out its casework for installation are routinely returned to Westmark for reuse, O'Neal says. Cardboard is turned into new boxes, and metal packaging straps and other scrap are sold to the region's largest steel recycler. Even the black plastic packaging used to safeguard hardware from being damaged gets a new use thanks to a local operation that sells castoff industrial and commercial "thingamabobs" as craft components to teachers, day care centers and Scout troops.

What's more, the higher-value printer paper is sorted and recycled separately from the rest of the scrap paper generated in the office. Proceeds from recycling plastic bottles and aluminum cans go into an employee fund.

By virtue of the recycling program, regular wastebaskets have disappeared from the facility, having been replaced by recycling bins. Each of the containers has a contents label. Larger containers are scattered around the shop floor to collect wood, metal and cardboard.

At 99 percent, Westmark has the highest recycling rate O'Neal says he has ever seen. CRS also works with food processors, wood products companies and other manufacturers.

The goal, O'Neal says, is to strive for 100 percent recycling and zero refuse waste. Recycling in that sense includes reusing materials and reducing or eliminating packaging whenever and wherever possible.

"Whether they can reach that goal is up to the company," O'Neal says. "It requires the commitment of top management. The only way to make it work is to make it part of everyone's job," similar to the way employees are ingrained to always be thinking about safety.

While he takes ample pride in his company's recycling achievements, Milsten says he has not gone out of his way to incorporate the program in his company's regular marketing efforts. "We mention it to customers when we feel it is appropriate," Milsten says, adding that he prefers to sell his company's products more on the basis of quality and value.

Perhaps most importantly, comes the satisfaction of doing something to improve the environment and the community, Milsten says. An added benefit, Milsten says has been winning the whole-hearted support of his employees. Getting everybody involved in a program of this nature has been a real morale booster, he adds.

 

Tapping into a Growth Market

Westmark Products Inc. of Tacoma, WA, generates a lot of wood residue in producing $24 million worth of institutional and commercial casework each year.

The company mainly works with general contractors involved in building and remodeling health care facilities and schools in the West.

President Dennis Milsten says remodeling projects offer special challenges. In particular, installation is often more difficult in renovation jobs than in new construction, Milsten says, because installers have to work around the schedules of an operating business. "Nobody wants to be interrupted," Milsten says. He hastens to add, "Yet, they still want their projects completed quickly."

In addition to laminated particleboard, Westmark uses hardwoods and hardwood veneers in its casework products. In addition, some stainless metal and tubular steel goes into company projects, mainly for structural needs rather than visual purposes. Reception areas sometimes call for a combination of visual materials, including wood, laminate, decorative metal, glass and plexiglass.

Westmark manufactures both stock and custom products, the bulk of which is for storage and work areas. Public jobs make up about 75 percent of the workload.

Milsten notes that projects funded with public dollars typically place price ahead of aesthetics when awarding bidded contracts. The ability to squeeze out an edge somewhere - as with its cost-saving recycling program - is vitally important in a price-competitive market, Milsten says.

"As wood waste becomes a viable product, is it really recycling or is it smart business decisions?" he asks.

Waste Is a By-Product

Laboratory casework is one of Westmark Products' strong suits. This project was done for the Benaroy Research Institute in Seattle.

Most of Westmark's recyclable waste is generated in its panel processing operations.

Westmark sizes particleboard and plywood with three Giben 2000SP panel saws and a Biesse Selco WNT-200 panel saw. Laminating is facilitated by a Black Bros. glue spreader and a Black Bros. pod press. Laminated panels are further processed using a Weeke BP-10 point-to-point machining center from Stiles Machinery, and a Morbidelli SA32 multi-spindle drill and a Morbidelli M35A1 dowel insertion machine, both from SCM Group USA.

Most recently, Westmark has focused on computer upgrades, including adding 16 AutoCAD stations to a fast, high-capacity network. The computers can instantly convert a customer's designs measured in inches and feet into metric units for cutting and machining parts on the European equipment. The measurements can be recalculated to English units for assembly and installation, Milsten says.

Along with the upgrades, Westmark has embarked on a bar coding program in which every component for a job is labeled so that it can be tracked from sizing through installation on the job site.

Balancing Challenges

Milsten says he seeks a balanced approach to dealing with business challenges.

"Solving the little day-to-day things creates the big victories. No one problem is greater than another," he says, adding that winning the war means keeping customers satisfied. "The job's not done until the final punch-list item is done and the last penny is paid," he says.

Milsten says every project has three parties to satisfy: the general contractor, the designer and the customer. Satisfying the latter is further complicated in public projects in which a team or committee of several people needs to be made happy.

To continue growing his business, Milsten says he wants to improve his information systems to service customers better. Color and material options will only grow more varied, and customer demands will likewise expand, he says.

"To manage that successfully, we have to beef up our ability to handle information and respond to our customer's needs."

Meanwhile, Westmark's target markets show plenty of promise, with the education sector showing probably the greatest growth potential. "Taxpayers are starting to recognize the negatives of not supporting schools," Milsten says, adding that facilities are aging and school-age populations are rising.

The health-care sector also means steady work, not so much because art adding beds but because of basic changes in how health care is delivered, Milsten says. A move toward specialization and outpatient care translates to new and remodeled facilities. Periodic upgrades show patients a fresh, modern look and accommodate constant changes in medical technology.

Research labs are another growth area, with the same need for continual remodeling. The Tacoma area has become a biotech hotbed, thanks in part to direct and indirect spinoffs from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, both located in Seattle.

"We've done a lot of labs," Milsten says, "and once the researchers come up with a new product, they need bigger lab space and production facilities, which translates into more work for us."

- Renee Stern

 

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