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Michigan Mulch, Fuel Business an Innovator

Grinding business uses Interstar granular colorant for producing colored mulch

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 10/1/2003

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. ó Necessity may be the mother of invention, but there is something more than need that drives innovation. Often, it is a compelling interest in taking something that already works and making it work even better. Witness Paul J. Farmwald, owner of Big Chipper, Inc.

Paul knew just the way he wanted to dispense Interstar dry colorant into a grinder in order to produce colored mulch. Essentially, he wanted the flow of granular colorant to change as the flow of material changed along the infeed belt of the grinder. Paul and operations manager Dan Frankenberger were certain that a dispenser could be built to match the flow of colorant with the flow of material going into the grinder. He was so sure of the concept that he developed a dispenser himself.

Paulís brother, Royce Farmwald, is a freelance design engineer in New Paris, Ind. Paul recruited Royce to help him with his project. Today, the brothers have a patent on the Granulized Coloring Machine, which will be marketed under the name Color Critter.

Big Chipper was launched in 1988. "Our slug line is, Ďwood made good,í " said Paul. The business has evolved over the years, but its focus is still grinding. "In 1988, I was purely a mulch retailer," said Paul. He expanded the business to even out the seasonal ups and downs.

Paulís company takes in all kinds of waste wood and produces mulch and co-generation fuel. The fuel is made from the wood waste of numerous furniture factories in southwest Michigan. "Weíre currently shipping an average of two truckloads (of fuel) every day," said Paul. The trucks average 35 tons each.

There is a good market for co-generation fuel in the region Big Chipper serves. Most biomass fuel goes in that market direction. Pellets made of wood fiber, which are burned in special stoves and fireplaces, are another emerging market.

Big Chipper collects green waste from municipalities and other sources as the raw material to make mulch. The company uses Interstar granular colorant for coloring mulch.

Interstar, which is headquartered in Sherbrooke, Quebec, emphasizes novel approaches to coloring materials. The Interstar dry colorant for mulch is a relatively recent introduction to the marketplace. Known widely for its research, development and manufacture of pigments to color concrete and mortar and the production of admixtures and fibers, Interstar has a long history of experience working with granular colorants.

Interstar granulated colorants are trademarked as Granastar. They require little or no water for application. Typically, the colorant is dispersed into the infeed trough of a portable or stationary horizontal grinder. It colors the wood during the grinding process. Interstar has developed portable systems to dispense its colorant into horizontal grinders and also dispensing equipment for stationary grinders.

Interstar has been in business since 1987 and is a leading manufacturer of pigments in Canada, according to company president Zack Gillman. The company started out as a manufacturer and supplier of specialty chemicals to the concrete industry. Interstar has 50 employees with operations at three locations in Canada. It has three warehouses in the U.S. in Syracuse, N.Y., Dix, Ill., and Kansas City, Kan., and also has two facilities in Mexico.

Interstar entered the mulch colorant market about four years ago, modifying a liquid colorant used in manufacturing concrete. The company had always made granular colorant products for the concrete industry, however, and quickly found that a granular product worked better for coloring mulch. The companyís pigment products historically have been iron oxide-based. For coloring mulch, a pigment also needs a binder or resin to make it adhere to the wood particles.

Interstarís granular colorant has the potential to significantly reduce costs associated with coloring mulch, according to the company. Liquid colorant is more expensive, Zach noted, more difficult to handle, expensive to ship, and the coloring process requires a considerable amount of water. Interstarís granular colorant requires little water and may be applied in a one-step process during grinding; there are fewer potential bottlenecks and lower costs associated with it. "You save on everything," said Zack.

Interstarís granular colorant process is not 100% dry. It requires about two gallons of water per cubic yard of colored mulch. That still compares very favorably with liquid colorants, which require considerably more water. In addition, Interstar has some customers producing colored mulch that use no water with the granular colorant. "It depends on the moisture content of the wood," Zack explained.

In addition, Interstarís granular color is priced less than liquid colorant and colors more mulch. And whereas it takes about three pounds of liquid colorant to produce one cubic yard of colored mulch, two pounds of granular colorant will do the same job.

Interstar customers that have converted to its granular colorant have reduced their cost of making colored mulch by 50 percent, said Zack. His 50% figure includes the cost of colorant, water, and associated costs, such as handling and shipping.

Paul had his first meeting with Interstar representatives in August 2002, and he adopted the granular Interstar colorant product soon after. He was attracted to Interstar because "water had a tendency to be messy" and it "muted colors," he said.

The idea behind the Interstar granular product got Paulís attention the minute he heard about it. "The theory is sound," he said. "The fact that itís granulized is what makes it color" as the grinder does its work. The wood, which already has water in it, and colorants in the granules are crushed together and mix nicely in the grinder. The Interstar color and grinding process produce a high quality color, Paul said.

Interstar granular colorant is used to produce brick red, black and dark brown mulches. Cypress mulch is marketed with a buff color.

Two Bandit Industries Inc. model 3680 horizontal grinders are deployed at Big Chipper. The model 3680 is one of four machines in the Beast series of grinding machines from Bandit, which is based in Remus, Mich.

Big Chipper uses one Bandit 3680 to grind in the company yard. The other Bandit 3680 often moves from site to site, particularly to municipal facilities where Big Chipper has contracts.

The Granular Coloring Machine, which Paul and Royce have named the Color Critter, features digital controls, a dispersing device and an auger mechanism. It can be moved and either used mounted on the machine or from the ground. The details of the placement of the dispenser are still being finalized.

The dispenser is easy to mount on the grinder. "One of our goals," said Paul, was that "we wanted a coloring machine that could be put in place quickly ó in 10 minutes or less. "The Color Critter is "quick on, quick off" and easy to install, he added.

Bandit Industries will distribute the Color Critter, said Paul. The working relationship with Bandit has been very good, he said. Big Chipper purchased its first Bandit model 3680 in spring 2000.

Mulch output, which increases to meet demand in the spring, varies, and Paul does not keep exact figures. However, in a typical year the company produces 70,000 and 75,000 cubic yards.

Not all the mulch is colored. "We produce some varieties of shredded mulch, perennial mulch ó a fine mulch for around perennials ó and cedar mulch from cedar in Canada," said Paul.

Businesses, such as Waste Management, normally are charged a tipping fee for dumping brush and other waste wood in the Big Chipper yard. Homeowners are allowed to drop off waste wood for a $20 tipping fee.

Developing a new, better way of doing something is nothing new for Paul. "I like being able to create, whether itís new products for the mulch business" or something else, said Paul. "I have the freedom" to do that.

Paulís premise for developing the Color Critter began with a simple notion. It should be possible "to put a precise amount of colorant" on a specific amount of product destined for the grinder, he explained.

Committed to business and family, Paul has little time for leisure activities. "I am a single parent with two kids," he said. He and his children enjoyed a week in California recently.


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