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Fantastic Plastic
The journey of plastic production, from Mobil Oil to Berry Plastics
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This is the fourth part of a series examining local industries in Newton County, including their history, production processes, community involvement and roles in the local, national and global economies. Today’s story examines the history of plastic producer Berry Plastics in Covington, a leading producer of trash liners and stretch film.

Plastic is ubiquitous. Americans use dozens of plastic products on a daily basis, and dozens of Georgian manufacturing plants churn out everything from clothing to Styrofoam to water bottles.

It’s precisely that ubiquity that brought Covington one of its first large non-textile industries: the Mobil Oil Corporation. In the late 1960s, the use of plastic packaging by southern industries was growing tremendously, and Mobil decided it needed a plastics presence in the Southeast. Then Covington Mayor Walker Harris was lauded for his aggressive courting of the corporation, leading to the Mobil’s commitment to come to the small southern city in 1966.

The year held additional significance for the corporation as it celebrated its 100-year anniversary and officially changed its name to Mobil. The company had been called the Vacuum Oil Company, which for a few decades was owned John D. Rockefeller’s famous Standard Oil Company, according to the website of ExxonMobil, today’s latest version of the oil giant.

While Covington was celebrating the grand opening of its newest manufacturing plant in 1967, an entirely new company was being founded 430 miles north in the booming town of Evansville, Ind. That company would one day find itself following in the footsteps of an oil giant, as it sought to expand its own share of a burgeoning plastics industry.

All Roads Lead to Covington

Evansville, Ind. has been consistently losing population during the past five decades, but the town just north of the Ohio River was booming in the 1960s, as the population grew by 10 percent and pushed past 140,000.

The South wasn’t the only growing plastics market, as nearly every area of life was being influenced by the chameleon of the chemical world in the 1960s. Imperial Plastics saw an opening in the packaging industry, which was transitioning from its traditional use of cardboard, wood, glass and paper. Imperial produced containers for the food and dairy industries, which would only continue to grow over the next couple decades.

Meanwhile, Mobil would continue to grow, opening additional plants and raising its employment to around 800. The Covington plant produced plastic bags for dry cleaning, produce and baked goods and trash and hospital waste receptacles.

However, as happens to all companies, Mobil’s priorities would change; the company’s focus would shift and the local plants were sold to Tenneco Automotive in 1995.

The manufacturing plants would continue to be sold and undergo name changes, including Pactiv Corporation, Tyco Corporation and Covalence. Human resources employee Peggy Hollingsworth keeps a copy of every business card she’s ever had while working at the plant. The seven cards are taped to each other and form an impressive list.

Across the country, Jack Berry Sr. saw an opportunity to jump into the world of plastics. He purchased the company in 1983, and proceeded to put his stamp and name on the company — Berry Plastics was born. Berry would continue along an aggressive acquisition path, as he sought to raise his company to the top of a competitive market. During the past two decades alone, Berry has added the assets of nearly 20 companies.

In 2007, Berry would purchase one of the Covington plants, completing a shared 40-year journey between the company in Indiana and the plant in Covington. Pactiv held onto the other plant, and the two companies are now next door neighbors, though they each have a different slice in the wide world of plastic.

Sweet Success

Berry came to Covington for the same reason Mobil did — it needed a strategic location in the Southeast. The company has four separate divisions: injection molding, thermoforming, blow molding and film and sheeting. Those terms refer to the way different types of plastic are produced.

The Covington plant falls into that last category and produces industrial trash liners and bags as well as plastic stretch film, like the film used to wrap large packages. Some of the largest companies in the world use products produced right here in Covington, including Con Agra, Kraft and Wal-Mart.

Film and sheeting is Berry’s largest division accounting for $2 billion in sales and making Berry the second largest producer of those products in the U.S. The Covington plant contains 295,000 sq. ft., employs just fewer than 200 workers and produces around 100 million pounds of film per year. About 70 percent of total production is stretch wrap and 30 percent is industrial trash liners, though the liners business is closing the gap.

Perfecting Plastic

The production of trash is easy. Everybody knows how to produce it and most people produce a lot of it. The production of trash bags is slightly more complex.

Although plastic comes in nearly every degree of density, flexibility, thickness and color imaginable, the same basic ingredients are used to make most plastics.

Plastic production generally occurs in two steps at two separate companies. First petroleum and natural gas is converted into plastic resins, akin to tiny pellets of plastic; they’re actually called nurdles. Hundreds of companies do this conversion, but two of the largest domestic producers of plastic resins are ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical Company.

Naturally, plastic resin is the main ingredient in finished plastic, and the primary raw material used by Berry. Similar to plastics themselves, these resins vary greatly and by using different combinations of resins one can add different characteristics to the plastic.

Additionally, a variety of other chemical additives are included in the mixtures, to make plastics heat resistant, reduce friction or make plastics more flexible. Standridge Color Corporation in Social Circle is a leading producer of these products. By combining different resins with different additives, Berry can create the perfect "recipe" for its bags and film.

Both bags and film are produced through a process known as extrusion. Simply put, the resin pellets are fed into an extruder, a long heated chamber, where they are melted. The plastic is then stretched into its proper form. At the Berry plant, this manifests itself in the large, four-story tall cylinders of plastic that rise into the air. The plastic is then drawn down in tube form where it is cooled, cut to length and packaged. Workers inspect the finished products and either place them into bins to be shipped or toss them into cardboard boxes to be recycled.

Not all bags and film are made alike. Different sizes, flexibilities and strengths apply to each. As for film, some is hand-wrapped, which generally makes it less stretchy and gives it more volume, while other film is machine-wrapped, leading to a much tighter, heavier roll. Some trash liners are rolled, others are folded, depending on customer preference.

In addition to its production lines, Berry also has two lines devoted entirely to recycling, called reclaim lines. The reclaim department is where Berry actually shreds up and reprocesses deformed bags and stretch products. It’s one of several green processes that prevents waste and saves money. Engineering Manager Charlie Williams said Berry’s green traits are important to its customers, who can then promote that energy efficiency to the public, their end users.

Local Focus

While Berry is heavily involved in using profits to acquire new companies, it also seeks constantly to reinvest in its current plants.

"If you want to gain more market share, the only way to do that is to reinvest in your company. Berry is very good at doing that, even when the economy is slow," Williams said. "They invested close to $7 million last year at the Covington plant alone."

The local expansion recently added two high-speed lines and 12 employees. The investment creates an interesting mix of state-of-the-art technology combined with some lines that are more than 50 years old, but remain effective and productive.

Reusing finished products isn’t Berry’s only green initiative. One other recent addition is an air conditioning unit that cools air by using the same chilled water that is used in the actual production of plastic.

Promoting local growth starts by promoting local partnerships, and Berry has its own buy local campaign of sorts. It buys its packaging cardboard from the Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation, just down the street, and its pigments and other additives from Standridge Color.

The company has always been involved in its local communities and the lives of area residents at its locations around the U.S., particularly when natural disasters strike. Human Resources Manager Margaux Palmer said the company donated 45 large cases of bags to the American Red Cross during the recent flooding in Georgia.

The company also donates trash bags to several local non-profits, particularly those where Berry employees volunteer, including the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter and the Newton County Animal Shelter.

"Our employees keep us involved in the community and our plant manager is very involved," Palmer said. "We have really good participation for a plant this size."

The company also helps their employees advance through training with DeKalb Technical College, including an apprenticeship program, where employees can complete a four-year industrial maintenance program. Because of all those factors, the small company that began in Indiana has grown to become a leader in one of the country’s most competitive industries.

See next Wednesday’s edition to learn more about Nisshinbo Automotive Corporation in Covington, a leading producer of brake pads for most cars in the U.S. Chances are good that the car you drive owes its stopping ability to Nisshinbo.