I’d like to stay with the idea of career transitions. By 1989, I’d had a good ten year career. After Oxy acquired Firestone, I outlasted a competitor as Research Manager and was appointed Director of Technology. This job involved research, the pilot plant, technical service and the technical part of a fledgling licensing business. It had provided me the opportunity to visit China selling our technology and leading an implementation team in country that included my father as goodwill ambassador. Maybe there’s a story there somewhere.
But from my family’s entrepreneurial background and my own delusion that I could someday run the company, I wanted to make a change from technology. I asked my boss if I could have an assignment on the business side. It took a while, but finally he said, “Why don’t you make a business out of recycling PVC bottles?”
For the past five years I’d worked on waste issues, particularly with respect to incineration. Plastics recycling in those days was pretty new except for soda bottles which carried a deposit. There was lots of political pressure because polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—which we made—and PET, from which soda bottles are made, are utterly incompatible. The lack of volume and the contamination issue positioned PVC as a barrier to recycling, and threatened the business of selling virgin material. For two years one of our trade associations had small efforts to get some PVC bottle recycling started. Then as now, it’s difficult to recycle a minority product in the waste stream, and PVC was about 3% of the bottles.
So what my boss proposed seemed like a logical next phase. It was a startup—sexy word these days, but the idea didn’t have the same cachet back then. For most knowledgeable people the idea was ludicrous. Even today, recycling boils down to four things: Getting something out of the waste stream, separating what you want from the garbage, cleaning it up into pristine condition, and selling it back to people in a form—and critically—at a price they can use. For PVC, there was no infrastructure of any kind to do any of those steps.
So, as they say, start at the beginning. We immediately offered to buy back PVC bottles at a price equivalent to the best price paid for any type of recycled bottle. What happened then was just about nothing. Or if it did, people sent me bales of the trash that came off the end of their line and took their exorbitant price. Occasionally a bale would contain a PVC bottle. Mostly they contained bugs. The bales started to fill a warehouse while we tried to invent separation and reprocessing technology.
Separation technology in those days amounted to a human-powered picking line. This was one of the brave new environmental jobs of the Age of Aquarius, and it paid minimum wage. In the long run, automation won out. If your eye can see it, and your hand can pick it a machine can do it—if you have enough computer power. But all that was a few years away.
And the entire process is made more complicated because for all of the warm fuzzy feeling of recycling, it was really the garbage business. Recyclers are the spearcatchers for the packaging industry. Literally no one gave a thought to how this brilliant new package they invented would impact the recycling stream. To this day, they still don’t, really. And that’s not what they get paid to do.
Over the next five years we spent our time simultaneously trying to get people to save us bottles, paying them to separate the PVC manually, grinding the bottles up, washing the flake, mixing it with some virgin material and then re-pelletizing it. It worked well enough to make salable material and put recycle-content bottles back on a store shelf.
And if you spent five years in the garbage business and didn’t come away with some funny stories, you simply weren’t paying attention. Too many to relate here. And in the movie version, Brad Pitt, playing me, winds up with a wildly successful business that eliminates the pressure on the virgin business, and everyone makes a ton of money.
I’m not Brad Pitt, and that’s not what happened. We could make it work, but not at a price—at least not without sinking eight figures into a plant, and that wasn’t going to happen. In fact, in 1994, I was asked to stand down from the effort, and it was folded into the regular business, mostly to wind it down over time so it could quietly be put out of its misery and given a decent burial.
The reason I’m telling you this is because not every risk you take becomes Facebook. I fell in love with the challenge and the business, and I refused to be defeated. Along the way, I turned down more standard and probably more lucrative business jobs because I was committed to seeing this to the end.
And that’s the irony. There doesn’t have to be an end, even if there should be. Any failing project can be kept on life support indefinitely in the hope it will work. I had some successes in other cases by doing just that. But this probably was a failure even though it served a purpose in its time and I should have cut my personal and our corporate losses earlier.
Kenny Rogers sang, “Know when to fold ‘em.” Easy to sing. Hard to do.
Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.