Special Report: Picking The Fluff Off A Heap

By Brian Kraemer
Published in the July 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Pizza box, empty container of milk, and an empty shampoo bottle. I threw all of these things into the garbage this morning before I made my way to the office. I pulled the drawstring on the white garbage bag tight, took it out to the curb, left it for the garbage man, and, on a normal day, I never would have thought about it again. As far as I know, the garbage man picks up the trash and takes it to a landfill far away.

As it turns out, that’s not always the case. Sometimes that garbage ends up on a factory floor and becomes something useful.

Robert Brown, vice president of industrial development for BouldinCorp based in McMinnville, TN, isn’t very discriminating when it comes to what ends up on his factory floor. That’s because Brown’s business is partially based on garbage. Specifically, residential garbage. “The garbage industry hasn’t changed in a couple of thousand years,” says Brown. “Two thousand years ago, our ancestors got rid of their waste by burning it in a fire, burying it, or tossing it in the woods or a stream—and we basically still do the same things today.” With an unusual approach to innovation, Brown and his company began considering how to turn the residential waste stream into something other than golf courses.

“BouldinCorp dates back to 1959. Since then, we’ve been building specialized equipment,” says Brown. One of the more interesting tracks of development has involved grinders—really, really big grinders. “We built a grinder that ground up a whole house—minus the cast iron bathtubs—in about three and a half hours,” he explains.

With an unorthodox track record, the company decided to approach garbage with the same gusto it uses to grind up homes. “We put together a system that would process garbage without sort, presort, or any separation at all. In other words, a truck just drives in, dumps the garbage, and we load it into the system,” Brown explains.

The process seems to be even better than recycling. The only items that need to be removed from the garbage stream are ferrous metals and aluminum. Once the metal is removed, the garbage is loaded into a series of shredders and grinders that turns the garbage into a pulp like mixture. After the grinders, the waste is loaded into the hog.

“I call it ‘grandma’s pressure cooker.’ She would use it to cook beans to get them tender and break down the cellulose. Our device is similar to that. It’s several feet long and we pass the garbage through. Inside the hog, we have a saturated stream at 125 pounds of pressure per square foot. Inside, the waste is sanitized, the pathogens are killed, and the materials in the garbage begin to break down.”

In only 20 minutes, fluff emerges from the other end of the hog as a cellulose material looking an awful lot like wood pulp.

In its own right, fluff—the material right out of the pressure cooker—can be beneficial. Its main application is in the nursery industry where the processed garbage can be put to use encouraging plant growth. “It can be used as a soil amendment,” says Brown. “The Army Corps of Engineers tested it and has published literature on the fruitful effects of fluff in the potting industry.”

But the use that should really interest facility managers comes one step farther down the process. “Another use that we have for fluff is to run it through an extruder,” Brown explains. “We make an 8′ x 8′ tongue and groove block.” Think Lincoln Logs. These hardened fluff blocks can be stacked and used to build walls.

“Plus,” Brown continues, “the 8′ x 8′ is the same size as a concrete block.” This means doors and windows will all fit into a fluff-built wall or structure. There isn’t anything exotic that needs to be done to the structure in order to make sure it will work as a viable building material.

There has to be some sort of a sanitary issue, right? Actually, no. The process that the waste is put through in the hog eliminates all pathogens and carcinogens that could hang around in the garbage. “The product is tested for safety daily,” says Brown. “We have an in-house lab where we analyze it on a regular basis and send samples out to verify what we’ve found. Nothing unsafe has ever been found.”

And the fluff block is hard. “Once fluff is run through the extruder, the plastic that is naturally in the waste stream flows to the outside, so you get an encapsulation of the material,” Brown explains. “You can hit it with a hammer as hard as you want and it’ll barely make a dent.” But if that’s not enough, the military has tested how a block would hold up to gunfire. “We fired a thirty-ought six metal clad bullet into it, and it only penetrated 4″.”

Granted, most facility managers don’t have a need for bulletproof building material, but the idea motivating the production of fluff has to be intriguing to those who consider themselves green conscious. “In theory, our system is capable of recycling 100% of residential waste. But because we sometimes find things like car transmissions that have to be landfilled, the reality is closer to 90% plus,” says Brown.

A facility manager could use the product in a few different ways. The most attractive being an interior wall. Think of the cinder block walls in elementary school basements. Fluff is just as strong, can be easily painted, and helps the environment. Talk about a new spin on the school recycling project.

Fluff has been around for a few years now but is just recently making its way into the building material market. It gives everyone the opportunity to use garbage. Fluff takes waste in a new direction. In the past, an empty pizza box was nothing but a grease stain and cardboard that would end up in a landfill. Now, rather than just sitting on a pile of trash, garbage that would normally never be reused can be turned into something useful—and even have a nice, citrus smell.