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Cast in green

You'd probably have a hard time finding someone who would associate the word "foundry" with the term "environmentally friendly."

The John Wright Co. in Wrightsville wants to change that.

Plant Manager Christopher Buck notes, "We're a recycler. We take junk people throw away and make products out of it that people use."

And since it launched an environmental initiative in 2001, the Wright foundry is finding ways to become a greener recycler.

Considering that the foundry churns out 600 tons of cast-iron products every week, the work to make the plant more environmentally friendly has been extensive.

It's included converting furnaces from natural gas to electricity, remelting all its metal waste for re-use, recycling its molding sand, installing heat exchangers to recycle water, and using sand vacuumed from foundry air as fill for a community park.

Although you would never know it, you probably see some of the products the Wright foundry makes every day.

The company is part of DONSCO Inc., which operates two other foundries — one in Mount Joy and the other in Belleville, near State College.

Yet, Buck says, "You'll never go to a store and see a DONSCO product."

That's because, by and large, those products are all inside something else.

Check inside heavy equipment and you'll see impellers and brake drums made in Wrightsville.

The air compressors lined up at Lowe's contain Wright components. So do the pulley mechanisms that connect the fan belt to other parts in Chrysler engines.

"Jake Brakes," which bring trucks to a rumbling halt, emanate from Wrightsville. Sump pumps, jet pumps, parts for machinery made by New Holland and Case International are all churned out at Wright.

 At one point, Buck said, Wright was producing 60,000 steering pumps every week for a year for Toyota.

Converting the furnaces to electricity was one of the foundry's first major accomplishments.

Now, 7,000 kilowatts of electricity surge through copper wire to create a magnetic field that raises furnace temperatures to 2,800 degrees F. That means the foundry can melt 15 tons an hour in its two furnaces — 5 tons of metal every 20 minutes.

Firing hours were also changed to run overnight Monday to Thursday to take advantage of PPL's off-peak rates while not creating a grid overload during high-use periods.

The metal itself is mixed in different recipes based on the tensile strength required for the finished components.

A magnetic crane lifts metal from various bins — cut up railroad rails, leftover pieces from stamping processes at Harley-Davidson, pig iron from Brazil to name just a few — and deposits it into hoppers that deliver it to the furnaces.

The molten metal is eventually poured into molds. However, Buck explained as an example, 100 pounds of hot metal are needed to make a 70-pound item.

When that piece is taken out of the mold, the excess metal is removed and returned to scrap bins for re-use.

Sand from rivers

The sand used in those molds provides an interesting story all its own.

Foundry sand, Buck said, is silica dioxide, "The same type of sand you find on the beaches in Ocean City."

Except this is river sand from Illinois. River sand is rounder because it has been rolling along the bottom of the river.

This is important because "a sphere minimizes surface area," Buck said. "We bond sand together with clay, and the more surface area the sand has, the more clay we need and the higher our cost."

Foundry sand is black, Buck said, because of a Seacoal additive, "a carbonaceous material that serves as our Pam cooking spray in the mold."

Pour molten metal into a mold and "it wants to stick to the sand," Buck said. "Now, the coal quickly ignites to create a gas barrier" that keeps the metal from adhering to the sand.

Looking at a pile of the ebony-colored sand, Buck said, "It's not harmful, it's not poisonous, it's just black."

Over the course of production, the sand breaks down to smaller particles that become dustlike.

Used molds are transported via a covered conveyer belt equipped with overhead ducts that enable an 850-horsepower "environmental dust collector" (a vacuum on steroids) to carry the lighter particles away to a holding area. In one year, 4,500 tons of sand is removed from production, and until 2007 it was all trucked to landfills.

But last year the foundry spent more than $30,000 in lab testing, Buck said, to prove the sand was not toxic and persuade the state Department of Environmental Resources to write a permit allowing the sand to be used as clean fill.

Now, that 4,500 tons is being trucked — at no charge — to help level hilly ground at a sports complex being built by the Wrightsville Municipal Water Authority. Not only is that sand not clogging landfills anymore, Buck said, but the water authority doesn't have to buy as much fill.

An added advantage, Buck said, is that tests showed the sand/clay mixture is a perfect blend to retain moisture and fuel vegetation growth.

The permit also allows the re-use of sand as a soil enhancer, or in the asphalt and concrete industries, so once the sports complex is built the foundry will still have markets for the sand.

As for the sand not sucked into the vacuums, Buck said, it is constantly used until it is ground down.

He said the foundry has "a 500-ton sand system and the process uses 100 tons of sand an hour."

That means two times in a 10-hour shift, "we re-use our entire amount of sand."

Buck explained that the foundry's decision has been beneficial to both the environment and the company itself.

"When we decided environmental aspects would become part of our culture, the benefits would be two-fold," he explained. "First, we would become good citizens, and second we would realize some cost savings."

Certainly, the company eliminated emissions of pollutants and reduced consumption of natural gas. It also reduced the amount of waste the company sends to the landfill.

(One process, shot-blasting, in which metal pellets are fired at castings to blast off any clinging sand, produces small metal particles, which must be sent to the landfill.)

The foundry also increased the quality of its products.

"With our electric furnaces, I feel we have as tight a chemistry control as any foundry in existence," Buck said.

And it now has the opportunity to market itself as a green industry.

Buck serves on the state's Cast Metals Industry Advisory Committee, an organization out of Penn State University that is trying to promote environmental awareness among foundries throughout Pennsylvania.

He has found that "some of our large customers have a set of criteria they use in selecting their suppliers.

"These days, it's not just quality, but they also require their suppliers to have environmental management systems in place before they can even bid on work."

Efforts recognized

The efforts have also been recognized by others.

In 2001, the International Standards Organization made the Wright operation the first foundry in Pennsylvania to be registered by the auditing firm.

"That standard says we have an Environmental Management System that meets their criteria in disposing waste, adhering to federal and state guidelines, and reducing energy," Buck said.

Businesses for the Bay recently awarded the foundry for "Significant Achievement" for its efforts to eliminate potential pollutants from the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Wright foundry accomplished this, Buck said, by eliminating sulfur dioxide and chemical resins from its process.

Now, Buck said, the resins the foundry uses to bind sand plugs for its molds are all organic resins extracted from sugar cane, corn cobs and rice.

What some might have initially seen as only an attempt to clean up its act, now lies at the core of the John Wright Co.'s mission to be an environmentally friendly foundry.

It has become, Buck said, "Much more than just a way to stay out of trouble."

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