Plastic from child safety seats is cleaned and then ground into small plastic pieces like these. They are sold to companies that use them to make new plastic items. Staff photo by Bob Hansen
Plastic from child safety seats is cleaned and then ground into small plastic pieces like these. They are sold to companies that use them to make new plastic items. Staff photo by Bob Hansen
Forty semi loads a day of used child safety seats might seem like an odd thing to be happy about but for East-Terra Plastics, their ship has come in.

East-Terra Plastics moved its recycling plant here from Indianapolis in 2018. The company takes in used plastic items, cleans them and sells the ground-up plastic to companies that make other things from them.

In recent weeks, East-Terra’s loading area at 725 W. 21st Street has been crowded with semis. East-Terra is receiving 40 semi loads of child safety seats six days a week.

Lawrence Bowlin, East-Terra’s business manager, explained how East-Terra’s windfall came about. In September, Walmart advertised an exchange program in which customers could bring in used child safety seats, the kind that restrain infants and children in autos. In exchange Walmart offered a $30 in-store gift card. In just a few days, participating stores took in more than 1 million seats, a far greater quantity than expected.

Suddenly, Walmart’s recycling partner had to find somewhere to ship all of these seats. That’s where East-Terra came in. The local company agreed to take a large portion of the seats. At first, East-Terra received about 20 semis a day; then 30; and recently had to tell Walmart’s partner to send no more than 40 semis a day.

“Between now and Christmas, we’re expecting 800 to 900 full semi loads,” Bowlin said. “We’re the primary receiver.”

East-Terra is fortunate that Ivy Tech Community College runs a semi-truck driving school from the same property. When Ivy Tech’s site director, Ron Oler, noticed that semis were jamming 21st Street as they waited to unload, he opened the college’s truck driving area to provide parking for them. Oler said Ivy Tech’s next CDL licensing school will start in November.

Skidloads of child safety seats are being stored in the plant.

The frame of each seat is molded from polypropylene or polyethylene, which are forms of plastic that can be easily recycled, Bowlin said. After the seats arrive, East-Terra employees strip each one down to its frame. They remove the cloth covering, the belts and buckles, the padding and, in some cases, metal bars that add strength.

Using a proprietary process, East-Terra washes the plastic to remove labels and the glue that holds them on, says Jay Chu, the company president. Then, the plastic frames are shredded, turning them into small pellets that can be melted and molded into something else.

In this case, Walmart has the first opportunity to buy back the plastic, which they will turn into shipping pallets to replace their wooden ones.

“It helps them create a closed loop,” Chu said.

What Walmart doesn’t purchase, East-Terra will sell to others, and has had several inquiries from companies interested in the product, Bowlin said.

In the few weeks time since East-Terra started working with Walmart, the local company has had to grow rapidly. That’s good for the company and is having ripple effects in the local economy, Chu said.

East-Terra added a third shift and is running 12 forklifts full time. It is hiring at least 10 more workers who can run the lifts and is keeping a forklift mechanic busy most of the time, as well as buying propane for the lifts from a local supplier at the rate of 26 tanks every two days.

Most of the semi drivers have never been to Connersville before, so Chu and Bowlin have to tell them about where to eat. They send them to their favorite restaurants.

The sudden work has also brought regional media attention, Bowlin said. One day last week, a helicopter from an Indianapolis TV station hovered overhead, making video for a news story about it.

“This is a national project. It shines a spotlight on East-Terra and Fayette County,” Bowlin said.

Chu said this work will probably last the company 18 months to two years. Having become a vendor for Walmart, the company is getting national exposure. Walmart has high expectations for companies with which it does business. Other firms know that if East-Terra can perform for Walmart, then it can probably perform for them.

Chu has visions of expanding in the old factory building where East-Terra is located. Currently, the company is using about 240,000 square feet and has made repairs to the roof, installed new lighting and fixed some of the doors on delivery bays. He said he’s already spent $300,000 on improvements there.

The national exposure, he said, has economic developers from other areas trying to lure East-Terra to their cities. He is hopeful that local officials will find ways to help him leverage his investment to be able to do more here.

Chu wants to be able to more than double the size of East-Terra’s operation in Connersville by adding an injection molding operation that would have the company using the recycled plastics to make products on its own. He sees more opportunities, including building on the company’s training partnership with Ivy Tech. He’d like to take on more interns or employees in training who, once they earned an Ivy Tech degree, could become better paid employees for East-Terra.

But for now, he’s happy to be working 18-hour days and making plans for a greater future.
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