May 18, 2004 | General

Evolution Of A Wood Recycling Company

Julie Burman
BioCycle May 2004, Vol. 45, No. 5, p.34

Rainier Wood Recyclers in Washington State recently boosted its processing capacity to over 300,000 tons a year, making it one of the nation’s largest processors of wood waste.
In December 2003, Mother Nature unleashed a powerful windstorm in the Puget Sound region of Washington State. For three days, local and national news featured images of homes crushed by Douglas firs, streets blocked by branches, and limbs piled like cordwood in urban neighborhoods. A profitable opportunity for wood recyclers? Perhaps. But Rainier Wood Recyclers -headquartered in Covington, Washington – thought it was an even better opportunity to give back to the community. Rainier opened its three facilities for free drop-off of woody storm debris.
The result? King County’s Department of Natural Resources and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency promoted the service as their “top story.” Rainier Wood Recyclers (Rainier) was prominent on TV and radio stations with news about wood recycling opportunities for victims of the windstorm. Homeowners loaded up family trucks and jammed Rainier’s access roads to dump nearly 7,000 cubic yards of storm debris in one day.
“We know that our business depends on diverse factors – including community support for our operations” says Tony Bennett, Rainier’s president. “That’s in part why we recycle Christmas trees as a benefit with the Boy Scouts and also work collaboratively with the government agencies who have an interest in wood recycling.”
In addition to his civic involvement, Bennett is a savvy businessman. He’s positioned Rainier as one of the nation’s largest processors of wood waste and earned the reputation for meeting tight end use specifications. Bennett also is willing to grind just about anything – and find a market for the product.
In 1986, Rainier purchased one of the first commercially manufactured stump grinders. Bennett laughingly recalls that a good day back then was grinding 40 tons of land clearing debris and finding someone willing to take a free delivery of chips. He carefully watched landfill fees increase and burn bans become a reality during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Real estate developers who traditionally burned the ‘slash’ or stumps and brush on cleared land were looking for cost-effective alternatives.
Conditions seemed right to grow the company. Tony Bennett persuaded his brother, Tim Bennett, to join the firm as the operations manager. And he hired Bob Sargent, who was working at the Clean Washington Center as the state’s commodities specialist for compost and wood waste. Today Rainier has 38 employees.
“At first we all worried about markets along with how to finance grinding equipment that local bankers viewed as downright weird,” Bennett reflects. “Today we have clients and access to capital. Now the game is all about increasing volumes while meeting stringent customer requirements for product quality and price.”
Rainier’s hallmarks are top-notch equipment, efficient operations, quality products, first-rate employees and customer service. Its client list includes over 70 municipalities and 500 private companies. Year-end financial statements for 2003 indicate Rainier’s sales increased by 35 percent despite a sluggish economy. The success is due in part to strong relationships with the Pacific Northwest’s forest products industry and the advantages of economies of scale. Last year, Rainier boosted its processing capacity to over 300,000 tons a year and invested $3.6 million in its new Auburn, Washington plant.
The company’s core business is grinding land clearing debris and urban wood waste. Most of its recycling activities take place where customers collect or generate material. This includes industrial generators such as paper or saw mills, private and municipal operators of transfer stations, and construction sites needing to recycle land clearing debris. Rainier takes one of its several portable processing setups directly to the customer, makes product at their site and then ships directly to market. The goal is to avoid multiple transfers of the material.
For smaller, truckload quantities, the company accepts woody debris from residential, municipal and commercial drop-off customers, but does not accept grass clippings. There are three processing yards – all located where new housing starts are strong on the east side of King County – including the new indoor facility in Auburn, 25 miles southeast of Seattle. For the sites, Rainier has been able to find land at reasonable prices with both enough acreage to buffer operations from neighbors and access to a good road system. For example, Rainier purchased 52 acres of farmland from Remlinger Farms in Fall City, Washington. It is located near large residential communities being built by developers such as Quadrant Real Estate, a subsidiary of the Weyerhaeuser Corporation.
Rainier uses ten acres at the Fall City site for inventory and operations and leases the remainder back to the Remlingers for pumpkin and berry production. The farmhouse was remodeled in a traditional style for use as the Rainier office. From the road the farm property looks pretty much like it always has, retaining the area’s rural character. Rainier hired their crew from the local community and Fall City has welcomed the company as a good neighbor.
Odor has not been an issue and Rainier manages dust by watering the piles in dry weather. The key to fire protection is always being aware of the potential for fires and being proactive in prevention. Facility cleanliness, pile management controls to prevent overheating, and high turnover of product are standard prevention techniques for Rainier.
Source separation is the company’s strategy for all incoming materials. Contaminated loads with garbage or demolition waste are not accepted and every load is inspected. Generally, tree prunings and land clearing debris are kept separate from dimensional urban wood.
Tim Bennett explains the company’s four mobile grinders and ancillary equipment are easily moved when on-site processing is required. Generally, a grinder and an excavator are positioned on the site with one operator working both pieces of equipment. Trucks with either a walking-floor trailer or possum-bellied chip vans are used, depending on which market the chips are being delivered to. Rainier charges its customers for this service, who otherwise would have to pay to dispose of the material.
The Universal Refiner Chippers – manufactured in Montesano, Washington – are the primary equipment employed to process large land clearing debris and urban wood waste (they’ve also been used to process over two million railroad ties). The company owns five, ranging in size from the 475 hp Highway Contender to the 650 hp Contender. The random-oriented chippers cut rather than grind and the screens within the processor allow for a wide range of product sizes. Since there are no pinch points between the knives and an anvil, the machine can tolerate contaminants such as metal. The chippers are portable and diesel-powered, except for one stationary and electrified machine at the Auburn processing facility. Periodically, the mobile chippers are brought into one of Rainier’s receiving yards to process material delivered by customers dropping off smaller quantities. These units can be operated inside buildings and transfer stations.
End products made solely with these machines include hog fuel for energy production, low-density fill materials and temporary road base for use at farms, construction projects or landfills. Rainier combines primary chippers with screeners to maintain the flexibility it needs to meet ever-changing market conditions and customer requirements.
For screened landscape products made from land clearing debris, a portable CEC flat-deck 4-foot by 16-foot Screen-It vibrating screen is used to make specialty products. The wood chips are screened into 7/16-inch by 2.5 inches for coarse mulches and arena chips; the 2.5 inch overs product is sold for biofilters. Because there is an excess of large chips, some of the 2.5 inch overs are reground.
“Historically, Rainier’s most consistent market has been bulk landscape products – grinding wood chips for mulch and soil amendments,” says Bob Sargent, general manager responsible for marketing One of the company’s more innovative product lines is wood chips for the equestrian industry. Rainier has concentrated on making arena chips, hot walker chips, and trail chips. Up-scale dressage, show horse, and racehorse owners at the local Emerald Downs Race Track see value in these chips that are long-lasting, light maintenance, and create little dust.
Sargent explains that end markets for chips vary by season and demand. On an annual basis, they average 30 to 45 percent landscape products, 30 to 45 percent industrial (hog) fuel, and 20 to 35 percent fiber furnish for the manufacture of board, or, in the past, paper pulp. Parker Smith is Port Townsend Paper Company’s fiber supply manager. His mill uses approximately 100,000 tons of hog fuel a year (called hog fuel because the chips used for fuel by the pulp and paper industry were ground with hammer “hogs”). Port Townsend has purchased hog fuel from many suppliers, but, notes Smith, “appreciates Rainier’s focus on consistently meeting our exacting hog fuel specifications.”
Dave Fruitiger with the city of Tacoma, also has a long history of buying recycled wood chips from Rainier for a variety of applications. “Tacoma has purchased Rainier’s chips for hog fuel, temporary road beds, and landscaping mulch,” he notes. “Each use requires a different wood chip configuration. For example, Rainier ground up old houses from Seattle’s Holly Park to provide boiler fuel at the right price for the Tacoma Steam Plant.”
A cornerstone of Rainier’s operating strategy has been building long-term and collaborative working relationships with its customers and others. A case in point is the story of Rainier’s and Boise Cascade’s six-year research and development project to come up with a wood ‘”chunk” for Boise Building Solutions, a division of the Boise Cascade Corporation. Boise approached Rainier with the goal of manufacturing ‘Honella’ ‘HomePlate’ siding from approximately 50 percent recycled wood and 50 percent recycled plastic. The siding is made with polyethylene encapsulated wood fiber formed using a proprietary high pressure and high heat technology. No glue of any kind is used; instead, the manufacturer builds on the wood for strength, and the polymer for durability.
Boise asked Rainier if there was enough urban wood waste available to source and whether the company could produce a chunk to meet precise manufacturing requirements. The answer to both was yes, so Boise hired Marathon Wood Recovery, also of Auburn, to source the wood and Rainier has an exclusive contract to process up to 12,500 tons a month for the HomePlate product. Rainier’s new Auburn plant is a 60,000 square-foot facility located on ten acres. In a way, the facility itself is recycled – it formerly was a concrete pipe factory.
Stationary equipment at the Auburn plant preprocesses the urban wood for use by Boise at its new Architectural Products Mill located in Satsop. Marathon Wood Recovery sources wood from throughout western and central Washington. Feedstock is currently limited to urban dimensional wood and does not include particleboard. Wood arrives in commercial van trucks, waste hauler dumpsters, large end-dumps, walking floors, smaller flat beds and service trucks. After being weighed, inspected and dumped, it is fed onto the feed conveyor, which drops onto a pick line with up to six employees who remove contaminants and unsuitable wood types such as particleboard. Clean wood not requiring sorting is put on a separate in-feed conveyor that bypasses the pick line. Both in-feed conveyors are fed with excavators equipped with a grapple.
A 48-inch conveyor belt delivers the sorted wood to the primary processor – an electric powered Universal Refiner machine -that chips the wood waste to about a 12-inch minus size. It is discharged onto a belt equipped with the first of four head pulley magnets that remove metal throughout the continuous flow process system.
Chipped wood then passes through a series of Debris Roll Screens® manufactured by Bulk Handling Systems of Eugene, Oregon. A smaller set screens off 2-inch minus material and a larger set redirects 9-inch and larger material back to be rechipped. This screening process yields about a 70 percent recovery rate that meets Boise’s exacting 2-inch by 8-inch product size requirement. A total of five screen decks was used to match the production of the chipper. The complete system has a total throughput of 52 tons/hour. The final overhead magnet removes chunks of wood with nails embedded in them. The material shipped to the Boise Plant in Satsop is loaded onto chip van trucks with a quick-load chain conveyor and the fines, or residual hog fuel, are conveyed into overhead chip bins that trucks drive under to be loaded.
Rainier continues to grow and remain flexible in a dynamic wood products market. Bennett notes that his philosophy is “very basic – focus on your customer, buy the best equipment, and treat every employee like family.”
As to the future, Bennett explains that part of the fun of business is figuring out the next challenge. He notes that opportunities beckon in Canada and California. The beauty of mobile grinders is that they can follow the market. And Rainier looks forward to continuing a productive relationship with Boise Cascade as that company implements its strategy to open new HomePlate plants nationwide.
Julie Burman is a freelance writer living on Vashon Island. From 1991-1994 she was the assistant director of the Clean Washington Center.

Sign up