How Polywood turns millions of pounds of plastic waste into beautiful outdoor furniture
There’s endless whining and gnashing of teeth these days about plastic pollution and how to reduce it. You would think this was a whole new problem. But of course, with all forms of pollution, the challenge of plastic waste has been with us for a long time. Several decades ago, a man recognized the business opportunity he represented and ran away with it. Today, he recycles an average of 400,000 milk jugs every day.
Doug Rassi, founder and CEO of Polywood, which makes outdoor furniture made from recycled plastic, saw the problem of plastic waste looming over 30 years ago and decided to act. His company, initially born from the basic idea of plastic-based wood, now offers seven different categories of furniture as well as accessories. It has production facilities in Indiana and North Carolina.
But it all started with just a personal wish for environmental stewardship and a simple Adirondack chair.
It dates back to the iconic 1970s Keep America Beautiful ad featuring actor Iron Eyes Cody. “The scene started with a bag of fast food trash being thrown out of a car window and landing at the feet of a Native American,” Rassi said. “The scene cut into her face with a tear rolling down her cheek. It was a powerful message advocating environmental stewardship.
This message resonated with Rassi, who pledged to do something for future generations. “From this campaign, serious efforts have been 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 sizable supply of Polywood’s raw material, high-density polyethylene, from which milk jugs are made.
Rassi and one of his early partners, a friend of his from high school, literally worked in a garage to develop their plastic-based lumber. But once they succeeded, they hung on trying to figure out exactly what to do with it. “We prototyped many products with the new material, including bridges, fences, marine and agricultural equipment,” Rassi explained.
It was a visit to New England that provided the necessary 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’s 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 success. But bigger things soon happened. “Our first big breakthrough came when Richard Thalheimer, Founder and CEO of The Sharper Image heard about our work,” Rassi said. “He reviewed our collection and put it in his famous catalog as a feature. Shortly after that LL Bean took over the line and we were off running.
Initial funding started with $60,000 in the founders’ personal savings, supplemented by a $100,000 line of credit. With volume driven by early success, Polywood has engaged a few silent partners to help finance inventory and receivables. However, after only a few years, the company was achieving positive cash flow and has been in self-funded growth mode ever since.
It’s not at all unusual for makers to struggle as they grow, especially with rapid growth. Brady Maller, executive vice president of strategy and sales at Polywood, credits the early focus on lean manufacturing for the sustainability of the company’s growth. “Rapid growth and expansion never lacks challenges,” he said. “But taking them head-on is in our DNA. In the early years, we embarked on a lean manufacturing approach with an emphasis on scalable process engineering that became the foundation of our ability to manufacture to order and quickly ship thousands of products to the demand. These lean processes, coupled with a culture of leadership development, are central to how we manage performance, quality and safety, especially when deploying capital and adding significant numbers of new employees.
Technology and expertise developed in-house also played an important role. “Polywood is unique,” Rassi said. “At first glance, it would appear to be a one-for-one wood replacement. Not so. Over the years we have developed custom cutters, accessories and design techniques to work specifically with this material. We have acquired, over time and experience, our own engineering and design capabilities which are well-kept trade secrets.
Unlike many growers, Polywood hasn’t been slowed by the pandemic. As with so many outdoor activity product manufacturers, their growth has continued over the past two years. “We’re all getting more and more outdoor entertainment these days,” said Julia Blanter, senior director of content marketing at Polywood. “So it’s wonderful to see that our variety of Adirondack dining chairs and sets continue to resonate with customers.”
Of course, this brings its own challenges, especially in today’s tough business environment. “Historically, raw material availability is just expected, but over the past two years we have found ourselves fighting for every basic supply,” Maller said. “Supply chain disruption, freight and increasing our workforce all come to mind. However, I think keeping a growth mindset while experiencing of the dichotomy of accelerated growth amidst uncertainty has been very difficult.
“Even at the best of times, strong growth is a challenge,” Rassi added. “As we are a very vertical company, it is necessary to grow all parts equally. You can only go as fast as the slowest aspect of your business. In addition, a shortage can stop production. In a world of supply chain disruption and labor shortages, this seems like an impossible situation. This is where I tip my hat to our operational leaders who have not only maintained supply for the past two years, but also sustained significant growth.
However, these challenges won’t slow Rassi or the rest of his team down. “We are on the path to becoming a sustainable lifestyle brand,” he said. “We will continue to expand the furniture collections and we continually talk about other product lines and their priorities. I see the world of Polywood as an endless expansion.