Business with a sense of (re)purpose

Ali Asmipudin, Managing Director for BridgefieldsGLOBAL demand for rubber gloves is increasing by 12% due to demand and consumption, according to major
rubber analysts. Increasing throughput and capacity may boost the potential to cater to a larger market demand but along with this production comes a higher number of rejects.

Bridgefields is providing the link in the chain by collecting scrap gloves, among other rubber scraps, which otherwise would end up in landfills, and processing them into rubber materials for end-use applications such as carpet underlays, shoes, leathers, basketballs and sporting goods, to name a few.

Born as a result of the downturn in the global economy in the 1990s, today, recycler Bridgefields
Resources is growing in leaps and bounds in an industry that serves to fill the gaps left by the
escalating prices and short supply of virgin rubber material. But not all recycled materials are equal,
says Managing Director Asmipudin (Asmi in short) Ali, who gives an informed view of how the
company is meeting the needs of the demanding customer base with quality material.

Scrap no more
Located in Menglembu, Ipoh, Perak, Bridgefields started off in 1995 recycling tyres and selling tyre crumbs for making heavy-duty carpets for golf clubs and airports. Now, it has branched out to recycling gloves.

“We don’t do any sorting. We only crush all the materials that are collected,” said Asmi, adding that large glove makers in Malaysia, like Supermax, supply the scrap material. “By not engaging in any sorting activities, we guarantee that all the waste material is reprocessed and this protects a company’s primary product integrity.”

The company employs a recycling technology, purported to be the first and only one in Malaysia, that depolymerises rubber scraps without degrading the properties. “Bridgefields is in a class of its own. It is amongst the new breed of recyclers that use chemical and mechanical depolymerisation, without autoclaving.”
The technology was actually developed as a result of the challenges faced by Bridgefields. It had to wind up in 2000 after succumbing to the 1997 economic crisis. It returned from the ashes, so to speak, in 2004, just when the prices of recycled materials went up amidst the shortage of virgin material supply.
The company moved into its facility in Ipoh, invested in R&D and, assisted by the Malaysian Rubber Board, developed a standard recipe for recycling that did not require autoclaving (as this degrades the rubber to about 50% of its original properties).

Since it only requires water treatment, the method is more environmentally friendly and does not emit any hazardous gases, says Asmi, adding that the company also makes its chemicals in-house. In recognition of this, Bridgefields has been awarded the SW321 licence to collect and process scheduled waste scrap rubber.
Green product Its main scrap material collected being NR, 80% of the recycled material Bridgefields produces is based on NR and the remainder is from synthetic rubber.

The company’s turnover for NR recycling is RM8-12 million, with 5-8% of this invested into R&D every year, adds Asmi.

While the physical properties of its Greenviro product depends on feedstocks used, which not only include rubber gloves but also rubber threads, catheters, condoms and various types of latex scraps, the main product it offers is NRG (natural rubber glove) 9OP. The 90 denotes that it is a premium grade.

Other varying grades offered include NRG 90HG – HG denoting that it is high grade with a tensile strength of 18.8 Mpa and of a natural black colour. Also produced is a fine particle-size grade for extrusion only.

Claiming Greenviro to be “odourless and sweetsmelling”, Asmi says market acceptance of the product has
been “good”. Potential in synthetic rubber recycling Bridgefields also recycles nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR)
gloves. “Our biggest buyer for recycled NBR is a shoe maker from Ecuador,” says Asmi.

“We see a trend for NBR because NR is becoming expensive and manufacturers are switching to NBR,” he adds. NR’s high prices are due to weather fluctuations (that affect the supply) as well as speculative trading (that creates a volatile pricing trend of the commodity). The latter threatens profit margins of manufacturers that are dependent on NR and in some industry sectors, such as gloves, producers are switching to the synthetic variety.

This switchover will also serve to buffer against a not-so-bright scenario for NR supply in years to come. According to the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries (ANRPC), marginal growth of up to 3.8% is expected for NR next year and this will increase by a moderate 6% by 2015. Further, global supply of NR is expected to start slowing down from 2016 and continue to slacken to a deficit level through 2018, against the backdrop of a moderate demand rate.

While NBR prices are currently stable, it won’t be long until these too inch up as manufacturers increase their respective production capacities. In fact, NBR is projected to increase by as much as US$200 tonnes/month. Hence, Bridgefields is sitting pretty with its capability to recycle NBR scrap material, with Asmi claiming that there are no “true NBR recyclers” in Malaysia.

“It is because NBR is chemical/oil resistant and nothing can break it down. But with our technology, we have managed to break NBR down to a polymer stage as well as break down the whole chemical chain bond so the recycled product has a longer end life,” he explains.

However, there is a downside to recycling NBR products, according to Asmi. “We need to have high volumes to make it economical.“

Recycling is pro manufacturing
The benefits of recycling cannot be emphasised enough. More than safeguarding the environment, recycling is also a best practice for manufacturers plus cost-wise, adding recycled material to processing helps manufacturers maintain the prices of their products.

“For manufacturers that are disposing of rejected items, Bridgefields can serve as a “watchdog”, to ensure that good products are not being thrown away,” explains Asmi, adding that to ensure the integrity of its recycled material, the company only deals with top managers of potential scrap suppliers. “Our motto
is that we ensure that scrap and rejects are 100% crushed and recycled and free from pilferage.”

“Foreign clients are more cautious and want to know where the scrap is going to and where it will end up,” observes Asmi. But he adds that the values of recycling are still not much appreciated. “The concept is still very much favourable in the West and not in the East,” he adds.

Another benefit is that mixing recycled material with the virgin variety can help to reduce the raw material cost for a manufacturer. “When we first started with recycling, the material was being sold at RM400/tonne, now the price can be as high as RM5,000/tonne because of the sorting involved. But even with this high price, it still makes sense for companies to recycle the scrap and mix it with the virgin materials to reduce
overall costs,” he says.

Expansion plans revealed
The company operates via agents and marketing offices in other countries to sell its products.
Last year, it participated in the K show in Germany and garnered “good response with enquiries coming from Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and India, while a big order was secured from Australia.”

With the encouraging response, Asmi envisions a two-year expansion plan that includes building a plant on a 4.5-acre location in Rawang, outside Kuala Lumpur. “We will have a full recovery centre and also be able to manufacture specialised recycled compounds.”

He explains, “Since we are already collecting a variety of materials, we have the technical know-how on the types of materials and the parameters and how to control these. With this knowldege, we will be able to compound rubber for companies that are unable to do this, especially to meet the higher standards in
Europe and the US.”

Other plans include the start up of butyl rubber recycling next year, with scrap from Australia and Asia.
This is welcome news for manufacturers that also share Bridgefields’s objective of keeping the environment clean as well as serving the industry sector by helping reduce costs, without cutting product quality corners.