Getting in on the Ground Floor

Dec 10, 2019, 19:57 PM
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November/December 2019

Story and photos by Megan Quinn

Once a cork company, Ecore International discovered the power of recycled rubber, which led to its most creative flooring innovations.

Feature Graphics 300 x 2005As nurses at a Baltimore hospital walk into a new patient’s room, players on the Buffalo Bills football team step onto the field, and kids at a suburban Pennsylvania fitness center race down a running track, they’re all supported by a secret force at work underneath their feet: recycled rubber flooring designed with their specific environments in mind.

Ecore International (Lancaster, Pa.) uses recycled tire rubber to make flooring meant to absorb impact, reduce bone and muscle stress, cushion falls, and make spaces quieter. In the 31 years since the company started using recycled rubber in its flooring, it has engineered more than 50 different products using specific recipes that match the needs of people working in hospital, athletic, hotel, and commercial settings. 

The company’s products, which appear everywhere from overseas hotel chains to the White House, rely on rubber’s inherent toughness, resiliency, ability to absorb shock, and waterproof characteristics, says Art Dodge, Ecore’s CEO and the fifth-generation owner of the company. “It’s virtually indestructible, it has acoustical value, it’s ergonomic—all those amazing things are already engineered into the rubber. We’re just recapturing it.”

But the “amazing” product that has made Ecore so successful almost wasn’t part of the company’s product line at all. In fact, for its first 120 years, the company only sold cork products like tapered corks, flooring, and bulletin boards, and it didn’t know anything about the recycling business. “My dad had a crazy idea to make flooring out of rubber,” Dodge says. (That would be A.B. Dodge Jr., the company’s previous owner.) “I was there when he invented it, and now I can travel all around the world and go into a gym or fitness center or hotel, and it’s ubiquitous. Our products are everywhere.”

Early innovations

G.W. Dodge, Art Dodge’s great-great-grandfather, started the company back in 1869 to sell cork stoppers and closures for whiskey and beer. Lancaster was an ideal location for his fledgling business because “it was the No. 1 brewery location in the country in the days before Prohibition,” Dodge says. G.W. Dodge did brisk business selling to pioneers. “If you were provisioning to go West, you came to Lancaster and got a Conestoga wagon, a Pennsylvania long rifle, and lots of whiskey and beer,” Art Dodge says.

G.W. Dodge eventually passed the company down to his son, Byron Dodge, who passed it to his son, A.B. Dodge. After World War II ended, A.B. Dodge recruited his sons, R.K. Dodge
and A.B. Dodge Jr., to join the company when they returned from their military service. By 1962, the company had expanded into manufacturing cork flooring and was producing 1 million square feet of cork floor tiles per month. But by the time A.B. Dodge Jr., the fourth-generation owner, took over as head of the company in 1978, he had two problems: He was low on capital and needed a new product that could sustain the company for the long term. Plus, his son, Art Dodge, had moved to London and had no interest in joining the family company. “My dad was always trying to make sophisticated products at low cost,” Art Dodge remembers. “Meanwhile, I had aspirations of doing more than coming back to Lancaster.”

 Dodge was happy in his job at Bain & Co., a management consulting firm. He also enjoyed playing competitive squash, but in 1988, he tore his Achilles tendon during a game. After surgery to repair the tear, he contracted MRSA, a serious antibiotic-resistant infection, during his hospital stay. The doctors told him he might lose his leg if he didn’t slow down and focus on recovery, he says. Dodge took it as a sign to take a break, go back to his hometown, and reconnect with his family. 

His father saw it as an opportunity to talk business. “He told me, ‘I know you have no interest in coming back to the family business, but I have this idea, and I want to run it by you,’” Dodge recalls. A.B. Dodge Jr. told his son he was considering making flooring and other products out of recycled tire rubber—a material he saw as being abundant, inexpensive, and durable. He showed his son a small bag of ground rubber and asked him what he thought. Dodge says he was unimpressed at first. “I thought, ‘That’s great, but what would you use it for?’ And my dad said, ‘I have no idea. You’re smart, why don’t you figure it out?’” 

Dodge reluctantly got to work on a prototype rubber mat made with the recycled rubber the company had on hand. He sprinkled in some colored rubber chips “to make it look more interesting” because he didn’t think anyone would want to buy flooring that came in just one color. Once the sample was done, the company salesman took it to New York to meet with a potential buyer. 

That order swiftly changed Dodge’s career path. The CEO of Nickelodeon, a children’s television channel, didn’t just like the sample. He wanted to order 40,000 square feet of it for his corporate headquarters. “It was such a win, so quickly—with no marketing, no literature, no specifications. And that’s why I’m here [at Ecore] today,” he says. “It all came down to that one order.” 

Developing markets

The Nickelodeon contract proved to Dodge that the company had a promising future in recycled rubber flooring. Then, the company had to decide where to go next. “We figured out how to sell the product in a week. It took another 20 years to figure out how to do it really well,” he says. 

The rubber flooring’s natural bounce and resilience made it an ideal fit for playground surfacing, which became one of Ecore’s first flagship products. It now comes in dozens of colors and thicknesses. Fitness center franchises like Equinox, Planet Fitness, and 24 Hour Fitness also helped Ecore gain some of its biggest accounts. The company has installed different types and thicknesses of rubber flooring meant to prevent slips, absorb the impact of gym-goers’ movements to reduce stress injuries, and muffle the sounds of dropped free weights. “We were very lucky to be coming out with these products at the same time the fitness industry was taking off,” Dodge says. “This market continues to grow.”

Ecore also started selling rubber running-track materials for indoor and outdoor use. It snagged a particularly high-profile client in the early ’90s, when then-President Bill Clinton ordered a quarter-mile track for the South Lawn of the White House. “It turned us into poster children for turning a waste product into something green and beneficial,” Dodge says. 

As the company grew its rubber-based product lines throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Dodge knew its niche was formulating products that could support people running, standing, or walking for long periods of time. The rubber also helped make fall injuries less serious. “We started thinking, where else do people fall where you can mitigate the impacts? For one, patients in hospitals, especially the elderly, are at risk of falling,” Dodge says.

To break into this market, Ecore had to make sure its products would be appropriate for hospitals, which need to meet regulatory standards for patient safety and recovery. Company leaders met with health care professionals, facilities managers, those in charge of building or redesigning hospitals, and risk analysis professionals. “All of them pointed to the same issues: They needed something that was easy to maintain, hygienic, and something that could comply with any other performance requirements any hospital would have,” he says. The product also needed “not only to absorb energy from a fall, but absorb the energy of someone on their feet for 12 hours, like a nurse on duty.” 

Ecore hired engineers that could quantify how effective different types of rubber floors would be at meeting the hospital industry’s needs. It also hired an acoustical engineer, who tests Ecore’s products for how effective they are at reducing noise. Hospitals like the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore also do their own testing. It installed Ecore flooring in 2015. 

Noise reduction is “incredibly important” at hospitals and other health care centers, Dodge says. He knows from experience that a good night’s sleep can improve a patient’s recovery. “If you’re waking up all the time because of the noise of a cart going down a hallway, you’re not recovering as well as you could be.”

As Ecore widened its range of products for hospitals, it developed a patented process called itstru technology, where recycled rubber is fusion-bonded to a top layer, such as carpet or vinyl. The lamination process is different from gluing carpet or vinyl to a rubber mat because it fuses the two components into one, making the product stronger and safer, says Garnet Sofillas, Ecore’s marketing manager. The itstru fusion-bonded line of products has helped Ecore break into markets where customers want quiet and safe floors that fit inconspicuously into high-end hotel lobbies or boardrooms “and don’t look like they’re made of recycled rubber,” says Mitch Schreiber, Ecore’s chief operations officer. A typical hotel guest wouldn’t know the difference, but Schreiber enjoys recognizing his company’s products when he travels for work or vacation. “In the flooring industry, you’re always looking down,” he says. 

The production process

To create Ecore’s more than 50 types of flooring products, employees at the two facilities in Lancaster and York, Pa., work together to process scrap tires and other industrial rubber scrap. Ecore used more than 109.5 million pounds of truck tires in 2018. About 4,500 tires arrive each day at the company’s York recycling facility, where workers shred the whole tires and other forms of commercial tire rubber and remove metal, dirt, or other contamination. Ecore sources tires from within Pennsylvania and throughout the East Coast, favoring truck tires because they yield more rubber than passenger vehicle tires. “We source specific kinds of tires where we know the chemistry,” Dodge explains. “We don’t use imported tires because want the rubber to be compliant to United States standards.”

Workers divide the shredded tires for further processing at either the York location or Ecore’s main Lancaster facility. A grinder reduces the material into specific sizes based on what type of flooring the facility is making that day. A shaker table with screens further sorts and standardizes the tiny rubber pieces. The most common size Ecore creates is a 1.5- to 3.5-mm crumb, but recipes might call for pieces that are as small as 0.5 to 1.5 mm or as large as 6 to 9 mm, says Brett Anderson, the plant production manager. 

To make Ecore’s custom color combinations and patterns, workers mix the ground rubber, which is black, with colored rubber chips. Ecore manufactures these colored chips in a separate area of the facility: It adds organic pigment and other ingredients to vulcanized industrial scrap rubber, then grinds it in the same way as the tire rubber. The company uses about 1.2 million pounds of colored rubber chips a month, Anderson says. 

After mixing the correct combinations of recycled rubber and colored chips, workers add an adhesive polymer to “glue” the mix together and pour the mixture into huge cylindrical molds, which cure the product into a solid form using a patented exothermic reaction, Anderson says. The mix stays in the mold for up to 12 hours before a forklift removes the rubber log.

 The rubber log goes into a “peeler,” a proprietary piece of equipment that cuts it into specific thicknesses and widths based on the type of flooring product produced that day. Some of the resulting rubber goes to the York plant, where workers who make itstru flooring products put it through the patented fusion-bonding process with a top-layer product such as vinyl, turf, carpet, or another layer of rubber. Any rubber scraps left over from manufacturing get collected in Gaylords and recycled back into more flooring products, Anderson says, especially rubber base layers that will be fusion-bonded to functional or decorative top layers like vinyl. “The customer doesn’t see the rubber underneath, so we can mix together rubber scraps of all different colors,” he says. Ecore’s products contain an average of 65% postconsumer recycled content, though some products have as high as 95%, Sofillas says.

A working family

Ecore runs three shifts per day with a total of 540 employees who design, produce, pack, and ship the flooring products. One of Dodge’s priorities is to make sure the large staff still feels like it’s part of a small, family-run operation. “If the leaders at the top aren’t focused on curating a thoughtful, intentional culture, they miss out on the opportunity to create a sustainable business,” he says. 

Each department has a daily “war room” meeting where it reviews the day’s performance, goals, and improvements. When something doesn’t go well, the war room is a place to discuss improvements with an emphasis on “a collective, cooperative approach instead of finger-pointing,” he says. Ecore’s senior staff members all have an open-door policy, where any employee can come by with a question, concern, or problem, says John McFalls, Ecore’s director of operations. Employees can also offer suggestions and ask questions during a regular communications meeting, where they get an update on what’s happening at the company. “People [quit] when they get bored or feel like they are not being listened to,” McFalls says. “Taking tires off a truck and shredding them every day is a tough job. If we can make our employees feel like they have a voice here, that’s everything.” Some of Ecore’s recent improvements came directly from employee suggestions, he says, including installing better lighting in the factory and improving the ergonomics of some of the processes. McFalls, who started as the company’s only maintenance worker 28 years ago, says he was able to work his way up because he felt the company invested in every employee. “We’ve grown so much as a company, but we kept the small company mentality where everyone here, even Art, is within reach.”

Employees formed an activities committee to plan the company’s annual holiday party and employee appreciation lunch. The company also provides ice cream trucks for employees on hot days and discounted bus trips to New York City and Washington, D.C. “Everyone spends so much time together, so they become like family,” Sofillas says. Ecore employees also form teams for charity races and play sports together, she says. After the company installed multiple types of athletic flooring at Spooky Nook Sports (Manheim, Pa.), the largest indoor sports complex in North America, Ecore held a company soccer game at the sports complex so the employees could enjoy the products they manufacture every day. “Everyone brought their kids and just had a good time,” Sofillas remembers. 

Focusing on the future

Spooky Nook and other athletic facilities continue to purchase recycled rubber sports surfacing, even though some parents and community groups have raised concerns about whether recycled tire rubber products might negatively affect the environment and cause health issues. Research to date, including an EPA study on crumb rubber playing fields published in July, has not supported those claims. Yet Dodge says it’s important to take the issue seriously. “Anything that raises doubt in consumers’ minds about the safety of our products is obviously a concern. We want to make sure we’re providing safe and healthy products, not just for the consumer, but for the employees who come to work every day,” he says.

Ecore puts its material through a third-party testing process that checks for lead and other heavy metals and contaminants. Some of Ecore’s clients, especially those in the health care industry, have done their own testing on the flooring to make sure it meets their own industry standards, he says. “We want to have a good relationship with the public, and we’re transparent about what’s in our products. The rubber in our products is the same rubber from your car, your shoes, the handlebars of a bike. The basic polymers are the same, the chemistry is the same, and there’s no real gap between the recycled rubber we’re processing and the rubber you’re buying in any other format.”

Dodge says he was inspired to join ISRI in part because he recognized parent and community concerns about recycled rubber products wouldn’t go away overnight. He’s now the president of ISRI’s Tire Division, where he hopes to help bring recycled rubber companies together to regain public trust and be more transparent with customers. “I knew that this was something we’d have to do together. As the recycled rubber industry as a whole, we have to step up our game, be responsible, be transparent. The industry needs to act more in concert with each other.”

Dodge estimates there’s a long road ahead for the recycled rubber industry, but as Ecore works with other rubber recyclers to spread a sustainable message, it is also focusing on its own future. Ecore is “always working on new products,” including a few flooring lines installed in its corporate headquarters that aren’t even on the market yet, he says. The company just announced a flooring product that combines both rubber and cork, which is a nod to Ecore’s roots as a cork company 150 years ago. It’s also tweaking some of its longtime products “to make them more unique visually or more installation-friendly,” Schreiber adds. It has some “extremely niche” products that fill loyal markets, such as a recycled rubber paver the equestrian industry uses in horse barns to reduce stress on horses’ joints, and an all-cork heat shield for rocket boosters being used in the space program. “We feel really confident about the future,” Dodge says. “There are so many things in the pipeline, and we know what we can do.”

Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer for Scrap.

Ecore International took a chance on recycled rubber in the 1980s. Now it has installed its signature flooring around the world.

  • 2019
  • Nov_Dec

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