How one Upstate entrepreneur is turning discarded plastic into profit

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Greenville's Caleb Lewis started recycling discarded plastic in 2008 after losing his sales job. Now his operation, Carolina Recycling Company, is selling post-industrial plastics to manufacturers across the world in order to divert millions of pounds of waste from landfills. Photo by Will Crooks.

Caleb Lewis lives by the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

For nearly a decade, the Upstate entrepreneur’s passion for sustainability has led him to turn trash into cash by helping small businesses and large manufacturers establish recycling programs in order to divert millions of pounds of waste from landfills.

It all started in 2008 when Lewis was let go from his sales job at The Mobile Storage Group, which repurposes shipping containers for onsite storage and construction offices.

After getting the news, Lewis started brainstorming business concepts, including a valet trash service for apartment complexes.

“Working there [The Mobile Storage Group] gave me the initial idea of doing something ‘green,’” said Lewis, a Taylors resident. “I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. While working there, and with 75 percent of my customer base being construction related, I saw a big push for green building or LEED certified projects.”

Using $5,000 from his mom, Lewis launched Trail or Trash Recycling.

He spent several years collecting bottles, paper products, and aluminum cans from small businesses for a monthly rate and selling them to domestic recycling companies for further processing and eventual reuse in various industries.

“I paid my mom back within a year, and it just grew from there,” Lewis said.

Greenville’s Carolina Recycling Company collects and processes a variety of post-industrial plastic, including discarded containers for chewing tobacco. Photo by Will Crooks.

By 2012, Lewis had secured more than a dozen clients and relocated his operation from his backyard to a 22,000-square-foot space in Taylors Mill, a former textile mill that he later purchased and revitalized for businesses. He also partnered with his wife, Natalie, and renamed the operation Carolina Recycling Company.

The company has since focused on postindustrial plastics recycling.

Plastic is widely used by manufacturers, because it’s cheap to produce and durable. However, as with any manufactured product, there’s discarded material that’s not part of the finished product.

“Some companies send discarded plastics to the landfill. But there are companies who prefer to send waste to recycling companies like mine, because it just makes one big circle and ends back up in the manufacturing process somewhere else,” Lewis said.

Building a business

Over the years, Lewis’ recycling model has attracted the business of both small and large manufacturers, including New York’s Bausch & Lomb, which is one of the world’s largest suppliers of contact lenses and other eye health products.

Lewis said manufacturers like Bausch and Lomb essentially act as his “suppliers.”

“I buy the waste and then bale, grind, or shred it and then sell it to either foreign or domestic companies that eventually repurpose it for their own products,” Lewis said.

Carolina Recycling’s suppliers span the Southeast and includes automobile manufacturers and various other industries. Each month, the company sells over 40,000 pounds of plastic and other forms of postindustrial waste. About 40 percent goes to foreign manufacturers.

“There are several benefits to exporting. One benefit is that you either get paid up front or receive payment within at least 48 hours,” Lewis said. “With domestic buyers, you’re probably not getting paid for about 30 to 60 days.”

Greenville’s Carolina Recycling Company is headquartered out of Taylors Mill, a former textile mill that once housed Southern Bleachery and Print Works and various other industrial operations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Photo by Will Crooks.

Lewis usually tries to sell his materials for about five cents a pound, earning $2,000 for every 40,000 pounds sold. “It’s a good margin for the recycling industry,” he said. “Our revenue has almost doubled every year since I started the company.”  

Postindustrial plastics recycling can also save manufacturers up to $300,000 a year in waste management costs, according to Lewis. And they can also earn more than $50,000 in profits by selling their discarded materials to companies like Carolina Recycling.

For instance, Bausch & Lomb’s manufacturing facility in Greenville has reduced disposal costs and earned $75,000 through its recycling program, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. The facility recycles about 60 percent of its cardboard, mixed paper, plastic, scrap metal, and pallets.

Carolina Recycling has processed more than 36 million pounds of discarded plastic since 2014, according to Lewis. It has also processed more than 8 million pounds of cardboard and 1 million pounds of wood and metal.

“We’ve diverted millions of pounds of industrial plastics from our landfills, which are big sources of air pollution,” Lewis said.

Caleb Lewis, owner of Greenville’s Carolina Recycling Company. Photo by Will Crooks.

American landfills released an estimated 163 million tons of CO2 equivalent to the atmosphere in 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Since the 1950s, 79 percent of the 6.3 billion tons of plastics have been sent to landfills to decompose. Only about 9 percent of the plastic has been recycled.

But more than 13 billion tons of plastic will be sent to landfills worldwide by 2050, influenced by a global plastics market expected to eventually reach $654 billion, according to the American Association for Advancement of Science. Much of that growth will be driven by packaging, construction, and automotive demands in China and India.

Fortunately, for pro-environmental companies like Carolina Recycling, the global plastics recycling industry is expected to reach more than $50 billion by 2024, according to San Francisco-based market research firm Grand View Research.

Surviving China

Despite the promising projections, Lewis and other plastic recyclers still face many challenges as foreign governments are beginning to crackdown on plastic waste imports.

China’s General Administration of Customs, for instance, rolled out a policy earlier this year that includes heightened restrictions on what kinds of recovered plastics can be imported into China. The policy, known as National Sword 2017, targets plastic packaging and electronic waste that contains plastics, including computers and appliances.

For the past few decades, China was buying as much repurposed plastic as possible, especially from the U.S. In fact, American recyclers like Carolina Recycling exported over 199,000 tons of recovered plastic to China in 2016.

“China was once the landfill of the world,” Lewis said. “They were the biggest buyer because their labor was low and there were entrepreneurs trying to capitalize off the cheap plastics that they could buy for next to nothing and make a great margin on.”

But the amount of imported plastics was unsustainable, and China quickly became overrun. Now the Chinese government has stalled countless shipments of some recovered plastics from the U.S. and other countries. It’s also started arresting workers from Chinese companies that aren’t using proper pollution controls for their imported plastics.

Greenville’s Carolina Recycling Company currently processes a variety of post-industrial plastic, including discarded caps that were originally designed to hold the eye drops. Photo by Will Crooks.

Now some American companies are losing money processing materials they would normally send overseas. “I know of at least three local recyclers that went out of business last year because of China’s policy changes,” Lewis said.

Lewis said he hasn’t exported recovered plastics to China in three months because hundreds of buyers have gone out of business or been arrested. But surprisingly, Carolina Recycling has thrived in the chaos due to its growing portfolio of foreign customers, which includes recyclers and brokers in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India.

In 2013, Lewis decided to expand his company’s buyer network to other countries when China implemented Green Fence, another crackdown on plastic waste imports.

Prior to the policy change, many American recyclers, including Lewis, had started selling mixed bales of waste to China. “We’d take plastics that took too long for us to sort and bale them together and just send it somewhere,” Lewis said. “It was extremely cheap for Chinese recyclers to buy and repurpose.”

But the bales, which were usually filled with plastic bottles and other materials, became worthless as China enacted Green Fence and stopped allowing imports that consisted mostly of trash. In response, Lewis and other domestic recyclers gradually stopped selling mixed bales. “I don’t bother with mixed rigids anymore,” Lewis said. “You won’t find a single buyer who’s interested in them.”

Photo by Will Crooks.

When Green Fence ended last year, Lewis started preparing for future regulations by expanding his buyer network to other countries throughout Southeast Asia. But Lewis said a lot of the plastic pricing gets dictated by China. And unfortunately, an end date for National Sword 2017 remains unclear.

Lewis said the company spends a lot of time and effort establishing a diverse buyer portfolio and researching where other companies have failed. The company, for instance, attends an annual conference that brings together industry professionals. “It’s a great way to connect with brokers, who can then connect you with potential customers,” Lewis said.

As for the future, Lewis is considering toll processing for plastics.

“I think it shows promise,” Lewis said. “We’d charge companies a fee to collect their discarded plastic, convert it into reusable material, and send it back.”

He added, “It would help them save money and resources while boosting our profits and helping the environment.”

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