Caleb Lewis at Carolina Recycling helps companies save money by keeping reusable waste out of landfills
Feb 01, 2019 11:18AM
By Kathleen Maris
By Leigh Savage
Caleb Lewis didn’t know what he was going to do, but he knew exactly who he wanted to work for: himself.
After graduating from Southern Wesleyan University with a degree in business, Lewis had worked primarily in sales, first selling tools and fasteners and then working for a company that leased construction offices. When that company laid off half of its sales staff—including Lewis—he knew he was at a crossroads, and it was time to make the entrepreneurial leap.
Then inspiration hit in a place where so many ideas are born—the shower. “I was praying in the shower, and the name and everything just came to me,” he says. “The original name was Trail or Trash Recycling.”
He started out focused on small businesses, setting up bins to pick up their recyclables. He quickly realized that for his company to grow, he needed to think bigger—and rethink the name. “That got me started, but it wasn’t the future,” he says. “And I quickly found out the name wasn’t as professional as I needed to be.”
The turning point came when he visited Bausch + Lomb, which employs more than 500 at its contact solution plant on Pelham Road, “with my little homemade flyer,” he says. It was 2008, a difficult time to start a business, but it worked out for Lewis, as Bausch + Lomb was without a recycling vendor.
A staff member showed him a room full of plastic and asked if he could do anything about it. Lewis’ response: “No, but I can figure it out.”
A couple of days later, the industrial side of his business was born. Bausch + Lomb generated a 40,000-pound load of plastic every three weeks, and Lewis kept finding better, closer sources that would buy the recyclables at better margins.
Today, his company, rechristened Carolina Recycling Co., focuses on post-industrial plastic recycling, and also takes care of some items like wooden pallets and cardboard for companies, including Bausch + Lomb, Milliken, Jardin, and Tier 1 suppliers to auto manufacturers.
One Word: Plastics
According to the journal Science Advances, 8.3 metric tons of plastics have been produced since the 1950s, and 6.3 billion metric tons of it have been thrown away.
Lewis approaches this issue from a business perspective, though he appreciates the environmental impact as well. “Most people do it because of costs,” he says of recycling. “Some people want to do what’s right, and want to keep it out of the landfill, but also if it benefits them. If it’s cheaper than the landfill, then they’ll do it.”
He understands, because getting into recycling was a business decision for him, not a crusade to improve the world, “though the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve become a steward,” he says.
There are thousands of different types of plastics, Lewis said, which are divided into seven groups. Each has different additives and must be separated before shredding and then grinding the pieces in ⅜ inch flakes, which can then be sold to end users who reuse it. “Or we sell to compounders, who mix virgin resin, your material, and colors, which can then go to an injection molding company to make a plastic lid,” he says.
The need for the service allowed the company to double in size every year from 2008 to 2014. He moved into a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in 2010, then doubled to 10,000 six months later. By 2015, he was filling more than 80,000 square feet at Taylors Mill, which he now also owns.
He was up to 16 employees running two shifts when the next big challenge came with news from China. For years, China had taken most of the recyclable materials from countries around the world. But in 2015, China stopped accepting unsorted materials.
Sorting the plastics is an extremely labor-intensive job, and often involves sifting for brass pieces or metal clips that may be threaded throughout the plastic. If his clients couldn’t sort their plastics, he couldn’t process it, and many ended up sending their plastics to the landfill instead.
Lewis is working with industries to show them how they could benefit both the environment and their bottom line if they simply sort their plastics. “It’s just about being organized,” he said. “At the end of the day, it will cut 60-70 percent of landfill costs, and the rebate they get (from selling their sorted plastics) will be more than the landfill costs, and it’s cash-flow positive,” he says.
With a truck and driver and 25 trailers, his team travels a 100-mile radius, often works in Asheville, and heads to Alabama twice a month to pick up material. His warehouse is brimming with boxes of plastic bottle caps, stacks of large plastic sheets, and piles of assorted materials, and he’s looking at adding some large new accounts, as well as another shredder to manage the material.
His “right-hand man,” Barton Wyatt, heads up operations at Carolina Recycling so Lewis can focus some of his time on Taylors Mill. Lewis had been looking into buying his own facility for Carolina Recycling when he found out Taylors Mill, where his warehouse was located, was for sale. He and a partner bought it, though the partner isn’t involved in day-to-day operations, leaving Lewis with a packed schedule of maintenance, repairs, and interacting with tenants.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says.
Now with the Farehouse restaurant next to 13 Stripes Brewery, along with various artists and galleries, he hopes to add retail and eventually apartments to the old mill.
It’s all been part of a steep learning curve for Lewis, who took a leap of faith each step of the way. “I still go in places and they ask if I can do this, and I say, I don’t know, I’ll look into it. I still learn all the time.”