Where It All Goes

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Curiosity got the best of me the other day.  I wanted to know what happens to the material when our recycling partner, Pioneer Industries, picks up from Visual Impressions and hauls it away.  Pioneer has been an integral part of our sustainability program for over a year now.  It was difficult getting a recycler to help with our program, as even though we are a large apparel decorator, we are small potatoes in the manufacturing sense in Milwaukee.  It was all a volume deal.

That was before I met Marty Oxman with Pioneer Industries.  A second generation recycler, the guy is an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding secondary materials, and is extremely keen on helping companies achieve their sustainability goals through recycling.  My goal was to get a recycling program off the ground, and make it easy for our staff to do the work.  The idea was to move as much material we could through a recycling program, and have it not go to landfill via our dumpsters.  Pioneer helps us with that task, as they provide, for free, large bins called gaylords that we fill with different materials.  We have these all over the shop, segregated by the material and within a few easy steps for our staff.  They also give us the big 90 gallon totes with wheels that are commonly used for your trash pick-up at your home, which we put to good use as well.

The gaylords have a decent size to them, and there are two kinds.  One is a made from heavy duty plastic, and comes with a lid that can be placed on the box for closing.  Then these become stackable.  We’ve found that we like to use them for our polybag remnants and assorted mixed paper.  We polybag our folded shirts for our clients, so they can be handed out easily or presented nicely to their customers.  The remnants are from the automatic machine that closes and heat seals the bag, and produces a small 2” x 8” scrap of clear plastic.  As we have four of these machines churning out product all day, we generate a lot of these little plastic scraps.  The mixed paper is all the general paper that you would think a busy operation like Visual Impressions would generate.  Any type of paper can be segregated into this bin.  Some good examples that a lot of people just throw away is the waxy backing from shipping labels from your Zebra printer, or the tissue paper insert that comes layered inside button-down shirts that you have to remove before you can start the embroidery.

The other type of gaylord is a little larger and is made from thick cardboard.  In these cardboard bins, we disassemble and place all of our scrap cardboard.  We try to reuse boxes when we can, but a good number of these get bent, torn or arrive to us in pretty bad shape.  Some clients prefer to ship their orders out in their own boxes too.  Any cardboard such as collar stays from polos or dress shirts, dividers, or inserts gets chucked into this bin as well.  Despite reusing boxes constantly for shipments, it is still amazing how quickly these cardboard gaylords fill up.

The 90 gallon totes are used for recycling smaller items such as aluminum soda cans, plastic bottles and strapping, glass, metal shipping banding, wickets and small parts.  We have these judiciously placed all over the shop, near where the material is usually generated, but out of the way enough that people can still work.  These totes take longer to fill, but using them is an easier way to divide up the materials, and makes it more convenient for our staff to do the right thing when the big gaylord is too large to fit into a work area.

When any of these containers are full, we pull them out of the line and bring them all to one spot in the building and replace the full container with an empty and start over.  We’ve worked a convenient schedule out with Pioneer, and they pick-up every Wednesday and haul off usually 12-16 gaylords of material a week.  Visual Impressions started our partnership with Pioneer in March of 2013, and as of today (June 28, 2014) we’ve recycled 44.17 tons of material.  This is all stuff that isn’t going to our local landfill.  Are we 100% zero waste and landfill free?  Not yet, as we still have that dreaded embroidery stabilizer challenge to contend with; but you have to start somewhere.  (See “You Can’t Unbake a Biscuit” for more details on that challenge)

Knowing all this you can see why I might be curious as to what happens to all this stuff after the truck pulls away each Wednesday.  Marty graciously accepted my “invite myself over” tour, and provided an excellent overview of his operation.  So, when his friendly driver Jim backed the semi-truck into one of our shipping docks and our crew loaded up our materials, I pulled my car around and followed him back to Pioneer.

The first surprise was that it was only about five miles away.  Nestled between an aging old Milwaukee neighborhood and a spaghetti maze of train tracks, Pioneer Industries occupies several large, rambling buildings.  I pulled in and parked, and as I was doing that the truck was slowly gliding onto a large truck scale.  Marty told me later that this is one method on how they verify the weights for the material for each load.  All of the material that is unloaded is weighed individually on smaller scales in the building so they can send us a documented report after each pick-up, but weighing the truck when it comes in ensures that it all adds up correctly later.  This is how we know exactly how much of each material type we’ve sent in for processing.

After I parked, I walked around the building and found the front door.  I was buzzed in, and Marty greeted me and issued me my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) – hard hat, brightly colored ANSI safety vest, and eye protection.  Walking through the rabbit-warren like maze inside the Pioneer buildings, I was impressed on how many different types of material they actually handle.  If you didn’t know, Milwaukee is one of the largest printing industry communities in the country, and Pioneer handles a lot of their scrap paper, cardboard and other printed waste that is discarded after the manufacturing process.  Each of these different types of printed material scraps are baled, banded and segregated by type into huge stacks of material.  Once they reach a full trailer load, these are shipped out for processing to become new sheets of paper, cardboard, plastic or other material.

Pioneer has a staff of fourteen people, and they were all busy working while we toured.  Numerous forklifts and bobcat tractors were nimbly moving material around and into balers.  Other staff were checking in materials and grading them, or getting a shipment loaded so it reach its final destination and be recycled.  Lots of clipboards, finger and arm gestures and really heavy stuff being moved around with coordinated effort.  It’s a ballet really, just without music.

Based on my observation, paper and cardboard is the majority substrate that they handle, which is segregated by type as the material comes arrives.  In one large area they have cordoned off a bunch of different bays made with large, heavy concrete blocks.  Each bay is about the width of a small garage, and contains a large pile of a different type of paper or cardboard.  From flimsy loose newsprint that is obtained from our Milwaukee newspaper, to thicker printed cardboard scraps that comes from local printing houses, all of the material is piled up like leaves in your front yard in the fall.

Once the pile gets large enough, it is scooped up with the tractors and placed on an enormous conveyor belt that feeds a 20 foot high baler.  The belt is about six feet wide at least, and an amazing amount of material travels up the belt and into the hopper bin at one time.  The baler squeezes out the compressed material into bales about as big as your couch, but square in shape, and I couldn’t help but think that it resembled a gargantuan Play-doh pumper set that I had when I was a kid.  They stack the bales by type of material in another huge room, and just patiently wait for the collection to grow until it reaches the point it can fill a semi-truck trailer.  It is then shipped off.  Some material is easily processed, as it is very common and there is a known pipeline.  Other material, such as paper that has foil or adhesive on it, is harder to find an avenue for processing.  Eventually it all goes somewhere though.

It was surprising to me that some recycled materials actually go overseas, not processed domestically.  Marty showed me a gigantic wall of spice-bags.  These bales were made of former industrial sized bags of food spices.  Heavy thick brown paper on the outside, but lined with a plastic bag on the inside.  Separating the two materials isn’t something that is handled anywhere but China.  Once they get enough to fill the truck, these get shipped off to join many others and will go overseas for processing.  Evidently over there the labor is cheap enough that these are pulled apart by hand for recycling.  The paper goes in one direction, the plastic in another.

As I was driving back to my office at Visual Impressions, I reflected back on my time spent at Pioneer Industries.  Finding value in the materials that previously we were discarding is something that is pretty amazing.  In fact, Marty and I had a good discussion on the fact that there is a tremendous movement afoot in the world for actually “mining” previously manufactured or processed materials for the core elements that have value.  Not everything can be saved obviously, but unlocking the minerals, metals, and other substances is big business these days.  When our sustainability committee identified recycling and trying to get to just 50% savings to landfill as our targeted goal for work this year for SGP (Sustainable Green Printing Partnership), we had a difficult time finding a recycling partner that made the work easy on our end.  After all, we’re in the decorated apparel industry…not the move stuff around, and sift through trash industry.  Building a recycling program is hard work, but finding a company that gives you tools, makes it easy and values customer service makes that chore a little easier.  I’m very happy that we were able to start our sustainability journey and build a great relationship with a partner like Marty Oxman and Pioneer Industries.

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2013 Work Sets Up Goals for 2014

First, thank you for reading my blog!!  I appreciate your time and hope that I have contributed something valuable for you.

So the year 2013 has finally come to a close, and like a lot of people there is some time for some introspection.  All in all, it was a good year.  I owe a lot of accomplishments to my great support team at work (Visual Impression’s awesome staff) and my family at home (wife Jody and son Jack).  Without them, I’m really just a squirrel in a cage running on the wheel by myself.  Some highlights below:

1. Blog.  My goal this year for the blog was to build readership through the use of social media and write at least one blog article a week aimed at the decorated apparel industry.  Using the WordPress analytics tool, I’d say my goal was an outstanding success.  For 2012 I averaged 1 reader per day, and only had 291 readers for the entire year.  Granted, I rarely posted and never really marketed the site so even that number is surprising.  2013 however, was a different story.  I averaged 32 readers a day and had 12,000+ readers for the year.  My record readership for one day was 452.  8,572 readers were from the US, but other readers were from 118 different countries.  Top five blog articles were:

Creating Art for T-shirts: Common Rookie Mistakes Defined

When You Are Up To Your Ass In Alligators

When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong T-shirts

20 Biggest T-shirt Shop Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

10 Creativity Tips for T-shirt Designers

2. Impressions Magazine Contributions.  I have really enjoyed my relationship with Impressions Magazine.  This year, I had a lot of fun writing pieces for the magazine or their newsletter.  Just recently I also put together a video Tech Tips for them (the last one on the list below) which was another enjoyable challenge.  In my mind’s eye, I don’t really think of myself as a writer but between these contributions and my blog, it’s proven to be a good outlet for me.  Here are the links to the pieces from this year:

Why Cross Training is Critical for Your Shop

Secrets to Rush Order Success

Key Traits for Customer Service & Sales Teams

Key Traits for Your Art Department

Key Traits for Your Receiving and Shipping Departments

20 Tips for Hot Market Printing

Key Traits for Your Screen Room

Beat the Heat: 20 Tips for Hot Market Printing

A Social Media Game Plan for Apparel Decorators

Key Traits for Screen Printing Press Operators

Multi-Media Decoration of Color Blocked Hoodies

3. Boston Strong.  The tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon and how two college students responded using our Ink to the People website (www.inktothepeople.com) proved that there is indeed hope for this world.  My blog article summed up the initial reaction (When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong T-shirts ) but it didn’t end there.  Since then, they have raised almost a $1,000,000 for the One Fund Boston and they are still going!  I am very proud to be associated with this inspiring effort.  Check them out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/StayStrongBostonStrong.  If you haven’t already, buy a shirt!!

4. Sustainability.  The idea of focusing a better way of manufacturing (printing) for business has proven to be a great platform for me to use at Visual Impressions and beyond.  At Visual Impressions, we’ve lowered our operating costs significantly by focusing our efforts into four core objectives: Energy Reduction, Materials (Ink, Chemicals, & Supplies), Courier (local deliveries), and Trash/Recycling.  If you are in the apparel decorating industry and haven’t started a sustainability journey, I urge you to look into it.  It’s a fantastic way to build margin, while doing things better for the planet.  How can you lose?  Some key highlights for sustainability for 2013 include:

a.  Speaking at ISS Long Beach again on “Sustainability – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle AND Lower Your Operating Expenses”.  I’m giving the same talk again this year – but with new and updated information.  Register for it at http://tinyurl.com/loms9eu.

b.  Speaking at SGIA 2013 in Orlando on “Sustainability Pays Back” – this was a great show, and I even had a client in the audience!

c.  Panelist at the 2013 Wisconsin Sustainable Business Conference for the “Profit in Sustainability” breakout session.  You can view the recorded panel discussion here – http://tinyurl.com/k7cquot

d.  Last but not least, being named to the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership Board of Directors in December.  Being part of SGP on a national level is a great honor for me and I’m very proud to be working for them to advance sustainability in the printing business.  With Visual Impressions obtaining the certification, that makes two companies that I’ve captained through the process directly.   www.sgppartnership.org

5.  Fitness.  On a personal level, I started going to the local YMCA on a weekly basis.  I’m averaging 3 or 4 visits a week, depending on my schedule.  I’m certainly not getting any younger (turning 50 in 2014) and going to the gym has been a great release and outlet for me.  I love listening to Spotify while I workout.

a. Ran and finished my first 5k run ever!  The Dragon Dash 5k for my son’s school was great!  http://www.thedragondash.com/

b.  On Thanksgiving I ran and completed the 4 Mile Turkey Trot in Memphis with members of my family, despite the 22 degree weather.  http://memphisturkeytrot.racesonline.com/  It was very challenging for this old guy, but I finished 1987 out of 3100 runners, and 105 in my age group!  Happy not to be last.  A few days before this race I ran over 5 miles in Memphis on their Green Line – it was super!!  http://greatermemphisgreenline.com/

c.  Visual Impressions had a Biggest Loser competition.  We had 10 teams of 4 people compete to see who could lose the biggest percentage of weight by the week following Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful experience and a lot of fun.  My team came in 2nd place, and I lost almost 6% of my body weight during the competition.  At the final weigh in I was down to 208 pounds.  Thanks YMCA!!

6.  ScaleUp Milwaukee.  Visual Impressions participated in a fantastic entrepreneurial program called ScaleUp Milwaukee (www.scaleupmilwaukee.org).  The goal of the program is to develop skills and critical thinking with existing businesses to grow their business in the following year.  I wrote a blog article that better describes the classes, Lessons Learned from the Entrepreneur Ecosystem: Scale Up Milwaukee.  Our goal for 2014 – 18% growth.  It is a big, hairy and certainly achievable goal.  Anxious to see how it pans out!!

7.  Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year Nomination.  Here’s a great Visual Impressions team award!!  Of the 34 companies nominated only 9 are small businesses like Visual Impressions.  The winner will be announced in February 2014.  http://www.wmc.org/news/breaking-news/2013-wisconsin-manufacturer-of-the-year-award-nominees-revealed/

8.  Having our Visual Impression’s team achieve the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership Certification (License Certification ID: 0413-1364915293), this was a year’s worth of effort and some outstanding improvement for the company.  The certification is with an independent third party audit; and achieving the certification has allowed us to market our company and acquire new client’s with our efforts.  Being an industry leader is a good thing…

9.  Finally finding a company in Milwaukee for Visual Impressions to partner with for our recycling…only interviewed 6 or 7 companies…  Pioneer International makes it incredibly easy and since March of 2013 we have recycled 26.9 tons of cardboard, paper, plastic and metal.  www.pioneerintl.com

So what professional goals are targeted for 2014?  Here’s the list so far:

1.  Major participation with the SGP Board of Directors.  My goal is to represent the decorated apparel industry with this group and get more printers, suppliers and industry media involved.  I already have one supplier, PolyOne committed to becoming a major sponsor. (Thank You!!) If you want to learn more and can help, please contact me and let’s discuss why you should get involved!

2.  SGIA Leadership Committee.  I will be traveling to Ft. Lauderdale in February for the committee meetings and looking forward to serving on the garment decorating and sustainability committees.

3.  More public speaking events on Sustainability.  I’m already slated for the ISS Long Beach show, but am also participating at the Manufacturing Matters conference in Milwaukee at a breakout session on the business value of sustainability – http://www.manufacturingmatters.org/sessions/sustainability-driven-business-value

4.  Recycling – Embroidery Stabilizer.  This is the backing material that we use to keep the embroidery secure on the garment.  Currently there isn’t a way to recycle this material.  This is a project that I’ve believe will change the embroidery industry if we can find a way to recycle this material on a broader scale.  Embroidery shops all across the nation are throwing this material away and it’s all going to landfill.  At Visual Impressions, we fill two 8 yard dumpsters a week with this stuff.  The problem is that it costs more to transport the material to be recycled than what it is ultimately worth.  If you have an idea on how this material can be used, or if you are currently recycling it I’d love to hear from you!!

5.  Social Media growth and networking.  I’ve spent a good deal of effort growing this part of my personal branding and it’s paying off every day.  If you are not connected with me currently, I’d love to network with you to share ideas and learn from each other.  Here are my major channels:

LinkedIn – www.linkedin.com/in/marshallatkinson/

Twitter – www.twitter.com/atkinsontshirt/

Pinterest – www.pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/

Blog – http://atkinsontshirt.blog/

6.  Visual Impressions.  As stated previously here, we are all about growth…but this growth has to make sense and be beneficial to both parties.  We want to be your trusted apparel decorator that you can turn to for any order or program.  We are currently adding personnel, equipment and infrastructure to accommodate the growth and get ready for 2014.  It’s an exciting time to be in this industry as there are a lot of new technologies emerging.  Contact me and let me know how we can help you with your success!  marshall@visualimp.com or (414) 379-6231.

7.  Fitness.  Keep working out weekly and have my weight consistently under 210.  I’d like to run in at least two 5k runs and one 10k run this year.  I’m considering this a professional goal, as my improved fitness has helped me daily with my work goals.  I do a lot of thinking while I’m running or sweating my butt off in the gym.  More than one blog article was “pre-written” while doing laps or grunting through some reps with weights.

8.  Professional Networking.  It’s great to share experiences and stories with others.  Learning and growing are always on the forefront of my mind.  Let’s learn together!

9.  More articles published in industry trade magazines.  I’m still going to write for Impressions, but I’ve also have been asked to contribute to Wearables Magazine and Stitches Magazine this year.  I’m on their Advisory Boards as well.  I’m writing my first piece for Wearables right now!

10.  Be a great husband and father.  Really this should be my number one goal, but it’s a personal one too so it’s good to end the list with this one.  Since working for Visual Impressions I’ve come to appreciate a better work/life balance than what was my daily life in Florida.  The grass is greener over the fence sometimes…   I love you Jody & Jack!!