How Polywood Turns Millions Of Pounds Of Plastic Waste Into Beautiful Outdoor Furniture
There’s endless wailing and gnashing of teeth these days about plastic pollution and how to reduce it. You’d think it was a brand-new problem. But of course, along with all forms of pollution, the plastic waste challenge has been with us for a long time. It was several decades ago now that one man recognized the business opportunity it represented, and ran with it. Now he’s recycling an average of 400,000 milk jugs every day.
Doug Rassi, founder and CEO of Polywood, which makes outdoor furniture crafted from recycled plastic, saw the challenge of plastic waste looming over 30 years ago and decided to act. His company, which initially arose out of the basic idea of plastic-based lumber, now offers seven different categories of furniture as well as accessories. It has production facilities in both Indiana and North Carolina.
But it all began with just a personal environmental stewardship vow–and a simple Adirondack chair.
It goes back to the iconic 1970s-era Keep America Beautiful ad featuring actor Iron Eyes Cody. “The scene started with a bag of fast-food trash being tossed out of a car window and landing at the feet of a Native American man,” Rassi said. “The scene cut to his face with a tear running down his cheek. It was a powerful message advocating environmental stewardship.”
That message resonated with Rassi, who pledged to do something for future generations. “From that campaign, serious efforts were made to clean up the environment, including curbside recycling. Out of this movement came mountains of post-consumer plastic, and Polywood lumber was born.” By the 1980s, ubiquitous curbside recycling programs were creating a tremendous supply of Polywood’s raw material, high-density polyethylene–the stuff milk jugs are made of.
Rassi and an early partner, one of his high-school friends, literally worked out of a garage to develop their plastic-based lumber. But once they succeeded, they got hung up trying to figure out just what to do with it. “We prototyped many products with the new material including decks, fencing, marine, and agricultural equipment,” explained Rassi.
It was a visit to New England that provided the needed inspiration. “The special moment in time came when I was on a trip to Boston and found myself staring at an Adirondack chair and that is when I had my ‘light bulb’ experience,” Rassi said. “It was the perfect application for this new material.”
Rassi developed a collection of furniture featuring the Adirondack chair, and the response from local outdoor furniture stores provided early successes. But bigger things soon came their way. “Our first big break came when Richard Thalheimer, founder, and CEO of The Sharper Image heard about our work,” said Rassi. “He reviewed our collection and put it in his famous catalog as a feature. Soon after, L.L. Bean picked up the line and we were off and running.”
Early funding was bootstrapping with $60,000 in the founders’ personal savings, supplemented by a $100,000 line of credit. With the volume driven by early successes, Polywood took on a couple of silent partners to help fund inventory and receivables. After just a few years, the company was achieving positive cash flow, however, and it’s been in self-funded growth mode ever since.
It’s not at all unusual for manufacturers to struggle when they’re growing, particularly with rapid growth. Brady Maller, Polywood’s EVP of Strategy and Sales, credits an early focus on Lean Manufacturing with making the company’s growth sustainable. “Rapid growth and expansion are never short of challenges,” he said. “But taking them head-on is in our DNA. In the earlier years, we went on a lean manufacturing journey with a heavy focus on engineering scalable processes that became the foundation for our capacity to build to order, and quickly ship thousands of products on demand. These lean processes, coupled with a leadership development culture, are at the core of how we manage performance, quality, and safety, especially when deploying capital and adding a significant number of new employees.”
Technology and internally-developed expertise played a big role as well. “Polywood lumber is unique,” Rassi said. “At first glance, it would appear that it is a one-for-one wood replacement. Not so. Over the years we have developed custom cutters, fixtures, and design techniques to work specifically with this material. We have acquired, through time and experience, our own engineering and design capabilities that are closely held trade secrets.”
Unlike many producers, Polywood wasn’t slowed down by the pandemic. As with so many makers of outdoor activities products, their growth has continued through the past couple of years. “We’re all entertaining more and more outdoors these days,” said Julia Blanter, Senior Director of Content Marketing at Polywood. “So it’s wonderful to see that our variety of Adirondack chairs and dining sets continue to resonate with customers.”
Of course, that brings its own challenges, particularly in today’s trying business environment. “Historically, the availability of raw materials is just expected but over the last two years, we’ve found ourselves fighting for every core supply,” said Maller. “Supply chain disruption, freight, and expanding our workforce all come to mind. However, I think keeping a growth mindset while experiencing the dichotomy of accelerated growth in the midst of uncertainty has been very challenging.”
“Even in the best of times, high growth is a challenge,” added Rassi. “Since we are a very vertical company, it is necessary to grow all of the pieces evenly. You can only go as fast as the slowest aspect of your business. Furthermore, one shortage can shut down production. In a world of supply chain disruption and labor shortages, it seems like an impossible situation. This is where I tip my hat to our operational leaders that not only kept the supplies coming these last two years but also sustained significant growth.”
Those challenges won’t slow Rassi or the rest of his team down, though. “We are on the path to becoming a sustainable lifestyle brand,” he said. “We will continue to expand furniture collections, and we continually talk about other product lines and their priorities. I view the Polywood world as a never-ending expansion.”