WAGONER — Green manufacturing is more than a trendy buzz phrase at the Unarco plant.

Green manufacturing is using processes that are environmentally friendly, good for employees and good for the community.

Unarco is a state leader in all of that, said Connie Cunningham, manufacturing extension agent at Indian Capital Technology Center in Muskogee.

“They are looking at the overall picture of becoming one of the strongest green suppliers in Oklahoma and they are real excited about it,” Cunningham said. “I think they are going to be a champion for Oklahoma.”

Unarco is Wagoner’s largest employer and the world’s largest manufacturer of shopping carts.

Terry Crawford, 65, is retired from Unarco but has come back part time to implement the company’s green manufacturing program.

While he’s spent his entire working life in manufacturing, he’s not entrenched in the old way of doing things and speaks with enthusiasm for the constant change green manufacturing will bring to the plant.

“It’s not management only,” Crawford said. “It’s not ‘us’ and ‘them’, it’s all of us. We’re in this together.”

The company has established four teams to look at ways of improving the plant’s operations: energy, manpower, suppliers and resources. Every team has a variety of employees, ranging from management to the assembly line workers.

“The guy on the assembly line knows his job and knows where changes can be made,” Crawford said.

Most of Unarco’s customers also are turning their operations into more environmentally and community-friendly operations, but it’s not just political correctness that’s making them or Unarco take that approach, Crawford said.

It’s also all about sustainability — about maximizing profits and growing for the future, he said.

“Profit’s not a dirty word in industry,” Crawford said.

Not all of the initiatives the company is taking to move toward green are profit-makers, he said.

“In some cases, it may not be profitable to recycle, but it will keep these materials from going to a landfill and will save the energy it takes to make new items from raw materials,” Crawford said.

It also has the potential of cutting costs and eventually increasing profits, he said.

When Unarco stopped chrome plating its shopping carts a few years ago and went instead to powder coating — the gray finish now used on carts — it eliminated hauling about 70,000 pounds of nickel-contaminated sludge from the plant every year. It also did away with the process of pumping the water off that sludge and purifying it before it was released into the city’s sanitary sewer system.

While the change was an improvement, it was not the ultimate answer. The company has continued to work on the powder coating process and has moved to using water-soluble materials instead of ones that contained volatile organic compounds.

Through the network of green manufacturers established by an program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce, Unarco has located a recycler in Oregon that will be buying the clear plastic handles Unarco removes from shopping carts that are being refurbished.

They already had a place to send the blue plastic handles. Those are reground and sold as pellets for remanufacturing.

The clear handles, however, are made of polyvinyl chloride and require a different recycling process.

Unarco also has started saving those wobbly wheels they remove from carts from going to the landfill. They have been a recycle problem because some contain metal bearings, the inner part of the wheel is made of one kind of plastic and the tread is another kind of plastic.

Crawford said Unarco employees are removing the metal bearings and they believe they have found a company to recycle the remainder of the wheels.

Reach Liz McMahan at 684-2926 or lmcmahan@muskogeephoenix.com.

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