– By Paula J. Owen, correspondent
LEOMINSTER, Mass. — Plastic is in just about every essential product in our homes, from laundry baskets to trash cans to storage containers and kitchen items, and some of it starts with small pellets transported by rail from the Gulf Coast to a family-owned business in Leominster that opened almost 100 years ago.
Some of the products are also shipped to local Variety Wholesalers Distribution Center, 1,100 miles away where it is processed before heading to stores.
Pellets, made primarily with crude oil, arrive by rail in nearby Worcester, Mass. from Texas and are shipped by freight to United Solutions, where they are stored in 12 large silos outside the company’s facility until they are needed to make hundreds of different products. When moved inside, the clear and colored pellets are stored in boxes and later fed into machines by line operators. About 3-5 percent of the pellets are recycled products from inside the facility. Some products are made from recycled products brought in from outside the plant, including old jugs for milk and detergent used to make trash cans that can sometimes smell soapy because of the detergent jugs.
"It is a closed-loop system," said Thomas C. Murphy, plant manager. "Nothing goes out the back door."
Inside the 350,000-square-foot facility, about 125 employees, some operating blow and injection molders, help transform hot liquid resin into various shapes with around 400 different steel molds — one for each product. Each mold, weighing tons, costs about $120,000, depending on the size and number of cavities. The molds take about six months to build and are used in two processes to make plastic products: injection and blow molding.
During the blow-molding process, a plastic tube is heated and filled with air until it becomes a malleable tube of hot plastic called a parison. Once shaped, the parison is cooled by industrial blow-dryers before it is cut, otherwise it will tear.
"It comes in as hard pellets, melts, flows around and is pulled off quickly," said Frederick J. Beauregard, vice president of sales and marketing. "The water cools it down, and air pushes it out through the molds."
With injection molding, pellets are heated into liquid resin and then injected into a hollow mold until it is completely filled and then cooled. Generally, the process is used for thinner plastic, Beauregard said.
Operators check computers on the machines to ensure the time of the cycle and weight of the product matches what the finance department "costed out," to ensure there is no waste, he said.
Srey Keo, 29, from Cambodia, moved to Leominster eight years ago and started working at the facility as an operator. She now oversees 41 employees.
"I love it here," Keo said. "Everyone knows everybody and helps each other out. It is like family."
Most of the process is fully automated, with operators feeding the components into the machines, checking for quality control and packing the product for shipping. Operators touch the product very little until the end, when it is packed, keeping down labor costs.
"Our canister is a one-operator line that makes the product competitive and helps us compete with other companies in China," Beauregard explained. "We take pride that 99.6 percent of the product we sell is made in the U.S. We had options in the past to move out of the country, but the owner wants to keep it here in the United States."
United Solutions uses its own trucks and drivers locally, but customers pay for their own shipping costs, he said.
Ronald E. Deyo Jr., director of logistics and warehousing at the six warehouses in Massachusetts, then takes over getting the product out to the loading dock to take the approximate 1,100-mile, 17-hour trek to Newnan, where the plastics’ long, winding journey from raw material to a consumer's shopping cart nears its end.
Ownership: Privately owned, one-shareholder company.
Headquarters: Leominster, Massachusetts.
Four manufacturing facilities: Leominster; Sardis, Mississippi; Gilbert, Arizona; and Calgary, Canada.
Employees: About 225 people.
Six storage warehouses: four in Leominster, one in Clinton and one in Lunenburg.
Company founded: In 1919, during the pre-plastics era.
Founder: Eugene L. Tourigny, a recent arrival from Canada who started United Comb & Novelty Co. in the French Hill area of Leominster.
United Comb & Novelty Co.: Made hair combs and buttons from cattle horns and tortoise shells.
Developments: In 1977, Edward W. Zephir Jr., Tourigny’s grandson, acquired the business from the Tourigny estate; and in 1986 entered the plastic housewares market using the brand name United Plastics, later changing it to United Solutions in 2006.