CanFibres new $70 million (US) plant is using old pallets and wood construction waste to create North Americas first 100 per cent recycled medium density fibreboard.
By Joni SenselDon't look for a harvest operation or log yard anywhere near the CanFibre Group's new medium density fibreboard (MDF) facility in Riverside, California. The plant breaks the tradition of manufacturing forest products near traditional wood baskets. Instead, the 134,000-square-foot main building sits within shouting distance of Los Angeles in the Agua Mansa Industrial Park. Down the block is a mobile home manufacturer. Across the street is a cattle yard. "Nobody complains about the smell of our plant," chuckles operations manager Larry Tinker. A third neighbor has more significance: behind the MDF plant is an urban waste transfer station. The CanFibre plant uses 450 tons a day of old pallets and wood construction waste to create North America's first 100 per cent recycled MDF under the brand name AllGreen. The proximity of the transfer station is mostly coincidence, however. The majority of CanFibre's materials are delivered directly by wood waste haulers under long-term contracts. The plant took its first shipments in February 1999, and the first shop-grade board slid out of the press in June. The facility is currently running at about 40 per cent capacity with 65 employees. Tinker expects to ramp up to 100 per cent and 75 employees by year-end. The Riverside plant is the realization of nearly a decade of work. CanFibre was formed in 1992 to commercialize a new pressing technology. The patent was originally developed by Forintek Canada, a research partnership between industry and government. The technology reduces resin curing times by 50 per cent, allowing CanFibre to make a cost-competitive MDF from recycled wood without the use of urea formaldehyde. "After Forintek developed the technology, they realized it was almost counter-intuitive with the harvesting of trees," says Chris Carl, CanFibre's president. "You can't ever use waste wood if there's not a first use of the wood, but it doesn't depend on the same fibre basket. So it was not a good strategic fit with Forintek's client base." CanFibre obtained exclusive rights to the technology for MDF production. Plant planning and bond financing took several years. The facility cost $70 million (US) to construct; cash reserves and expenses brought the project's total financing to $120 million.
Shovels hit the dirt in 1997. Engineering, procurement and construction were handled by Massachusetts' Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation. Stone & Webster Operating Company managed the startup and continues to operate the facility for CanFibre, although Carl says that CanFibre ultimately will take over. Construction, which was performed by ARB Construction of Paramount, California took two years. "We started up about six months behind schedule due to construction and engineering delays," Tinker says. "The site is in California and the engineering was done in Toronto. It was a big challenge to have that long of a line between the two." Since the team began commissioning equipment in early 1999, however, things have been running more smoothly. "The fibre quality has surpassed our expectations," says Tinker. A small quantity of waste wood arrives already crushed into pieces under six inches in 45-foot, self-unloading vans. The majority of material, whole wood in lengths of 16 feet or shorter, is delivered in rolloff containers. The wood goes into a West Salem Machinery primary chipper and a series of metal removal systems. "We actually remove the metal after grinding," says Tinker. The chips are screened and may be directed to a secondary grinder. A third screening removes both wood fines and minuscule contaminants. Acceptable chips then flow into a chip washer, where they're immersed for further cleaning before refining.
The clean chips are steamed soft and transported to the digester for three minutes of cooking. Then an 8,500 hp Sunds M-60 refiner breaks down the wood into fibre with an approximate 50 per cent moisture content. A phenol formaldehyde resin is injected into the fibre furnish before it enters a two-stage dryer. The first stage dries the fibre/glue mix to roughly 15 per cent moisture. The second stage reduces the moisture content to six per cent. This fibre furnish moves to a surge bin with a 15-minute capacity, then into the former's dosing bin. The Kvaerner former lays down an eight-foot fibre mat that is precompressed and cut into 96-foot lengths for the press. At the heart of CanFibre's proprietary process is a patented, single-opening, 8-foot by 96-foot Dieffenbacher press, weighing in with over 18,000 tons of components. As hydraulic pressure compresses the fibre mat, steam is injected into the board from both sides. "The steam injection allows us to run a very short press cycle of about four minutes," says Tinker. There are numerous advantages related primarily to CanFibre's choice of resin. First, phenol resins, which otherwise would take prohibitively long to cure, work best with the multispecies mix of urban wood. Second, the short press cycle helps CanFibre maintain production speeds and prices competitive with panel manufacturers using traditional, faster-setting urea formaldehyde (UF) resins.
Third, phenol-based resins have allowed CanFibre to develop resin additives for moisture and fire resistance. Finally, unlike UF, the more stable phenol resins release no formaldehyde emissions once cured. Once out of the press, the MDF is cut into master panels between 16 and 24 feet long. These panels pass through a Globe Machinery continuous cooling wheel for 30 to 40 minutes before moving to a Globe two-pass saw that cuts either four-by-eight-foot or five-by-eight-foot panels. A Steinemann six-headed sander smooths the tops and bottoms simultaneously. The panels are visually graded, unitized with steel strapping and shipped by truck or rail. When it reaches full capacity, the Riverside plant will produce 78 million square feet ( 3 /4 " basis) annually. Allen Bradley programmable logic controls and Wonderware software manage the facility's electrical and machine operations.
"Two people in our control room with monitors have visual control of everything in our process up to the sander," notes Tinker. The plant's non-union employees, working four shifts, seven days a week, shipped their first premium, AllGreen branded panels in late September. Moisture-resistant and fire-resistant products have been produced on a small scale. "We're very happy with our first fire-resistant board, which passed small-scale tests the first time we made it," says Tinker. "Underwriters Laboratories representatives are scheduled to come to the plant to certify us." CanFibre ships all of its panels to Timber Products of Eugene, Oregon, under a 20-year distribution contract. Timber Products sells the panels to industrial accounts, primarily furniture and cabinet makers.
The fire-retardant panels will also be distributed by Ontario-based Wanderosa Wood Products. Recycled raw materials and low-fuming resins allow CanFibre to market AllGreen as an environmentally friendly product. The plant also qualifies as environmentally friendly. To comply with its zero-discharge water permit, the plant recycles its chip washing water. CanFibre's air quality equipment meets US Environmental Protection Agency Best Available Control Technology (BACT) standards as well as tough state air quality requirements. This equipment includes high-efficiency cyclones, two wet electrostatic precipitators that remove particulates, ultralow NOx burners, and a thermo-catalytic oxidizer that incinerates volatile organic compounds (VOCs). CanFibre's environmental efforts haven't gone unnoticed. In July 1999, the company won a Sequoia Award for environmental leadership from the Association of Woodworking and Furniture Suppliers. Earlier in the summer, CanFibre's parent company, Kafus Environmental Industries, received a Green Globe Corporate Award from the Rainforest Alliance.
Tinker says the plant is obtaining Green Cross environmental certification. Once it reaches full capacity, it will also be registered under the International Standards Organization's ISO 9002 quality management standards, and he expects it to become the world's first wood products facility to achieve ISO 14001 environmental management registration. Tinker and Carl are both proud of the plant's ability to make good use of wood resources that would otherwise likely be landfill. "We're extending the forest as a resource basket," notes Carl. The company plans a total of six plants. The second is currently under construction in Lackawanna, New York. A third, larger plant is being built in Amsterdam, and financing and supply arrangements are underway for a fourth, most likely to be built in Chicago.
The Lackawanna plant is expected to start up in mid-2000. Tinker says it will be almost identical to the Riverside plant, with two exceptions: the Lackawanna press will be 9 feet wide and the finishing line will include a Schelling book saw, both intended to more efficiently produce the 5-foot wide panels favored in eastern markets. "We expect our New York plant to start up much more smoothly," notes Tinker. "We'll be able to use Riverside as a training ground." For many observers, Riverside will also be a proving ground. CanFibre is forging a path through the relatively unexplored territory of recycled wood use, "green" certification, environmental niche marketing and leading edge environmental controls. The trip-and the financial results-will be worth watching.
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