Wood Works

A Lake Orion recycling company turns yard trash into big cash.
Photographs by Cybelle Codish

At Environmental Wood Solutions in Lake Orion, owner Larry Mullins is living proof that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Day after day, a steady parade of 50 garbage trucks hauling yard waste rumble into the grinding yard on Giddings Road, where Mullins readily welcomes their loads of stumps, leaves, tree branches, brush, and grass clippings — and gets paid to do so.

His method of disposal is to convert the mounds of yard waste into an annual supply of 40,000 tons of highly profitable compost material. Among his customers for this product are Hyponex, the manufacturer of Scotts Miracle-Gro products; local commercial landscaping suppliers; and the Michigan Department of Transportation, which uses the compost for land restoration around road-building projects statewide.

Turning yard trash into big cash is only one aspect of the state’s largest wood-grinding operation. EWS takes in all wood waste and commercial discards, including broken wooden pallets, crates, old roofing shingles, and worn-out tires that once were destined for area landfills.

“We process about 60,000 tons of wood a year,” Mullins says. “We separate or grade it, and use the premium material for landscape mulch. The industrial waste wood goes to operations that burn wood pellets for heat. We send 60 tons a day of this material to greenhouses in Leamington, Ontario.”

The most undesirable wood — stumps, bark, and other scraps — are ground into chips and shipped off to be used as fuel at seven Michigan power plants. These plants burn nearly 2 million tons of waste wood each year — accounting for half of Michigan’s renewable energy sources, according to the industry’s association, the Michigan Sustainable Energy Coalition.

While EWS’ goal is profitability, its underlying mission, as Mullins sees it, is to protect the environment and preserve landfills for waste that’s really worthless.

“About 35 percent of material going into landfills [has been] waste wood,” Mullins says. “Whether we recycle it for heat or cogent fuel or landscape material, it’s better than having it go into landfills.”

Since opening EWS’ Giddings Road facility in 2002, Mullins has expanded his grinding operations to a 242-acre site in Lapeer and a 20-acre site, opened six months ago, in Saginaw. He provides grinding services for the city of Detroit’s public works department at two sites in the city, as well as operating other grinding facilities in Southfield, Sterling Heights, and Warren.

Recently, Mullins bought nearly 7 acres of land and a cement factory adjacent to his Orion operation. Earth-moving equipment is now shaping that land, which will also become a grinding yard — enabling Mullins to double his production at the facility.

“In the last 16 months, our business has doubled,” he says. “We’re going to lease the cement plant to a company to run it for us, producing concrete to sell on the open market.”

While these grinding operations offer a convenient disposal service for landscape and tree companies, it’s a win-win situation for Mullins. Waste haulers and landscapers pay Mullins a fee to dispose of their waste, and he gets material to recycle into even more profitable products.

“We charge less than half of what the landfill charges them in tipping fees,” Mullins says. “The landfill’s tip fee [is] based on the volume of space they’re losing in the landfill. We’re charging a fee based on what our processing costs are to get this material to a usable state.”

Mullins says his two-year stint in land development in the late 1990s steered him to wood recycling.

“I did 600 home sites here in Orion Town-ship before I went into the land-clearing business,” he says. “All the waste from projects either went into landfills or got burned. I kept looking at that same scenario of dumping or burning this kind of wood waste material. I knew there had to be a better way to do this, a more resourceful way to use this material.”

Today, Mullins has $11 million invested in massive grinders, transport trucks, and other equipment geared to recycling waste. This spring he took delivery of a $750,000 German-built machine that cleans and sizes composted material, and vacuums out paper and plastic to purify the composted material. Mullins also added two radial stackers, each $125,000 machines that stack compost into huge piles.

“If we’re not the biggest, then we’re one of the largest composting facilities in the state of Michigan,” Mullins says. “We have more grinding capacity, more processing capacity, than anyone I know. The company has the grinding capacity to process as much as 4,000 to 6,000 tons of wood per day.”

One grinder has powerful magnets that pull out nails, screws, and metal staples as piles of broken wooden pallets are fed through the machines and reduced to wood chips. The nails and other metal-like rivets extracted from the wood are sold to metal scrap yards, while the wood chips go to landscaping or are further reduced to mulch.

“We’re one of the only one-stop shops in this business,” Mullins says. “We grind, we dye, we compost, and we transport the material. There’s not one aspect of our work we subcontract or don’t do ourselves.” Mullins is equally proud of his company’s innovations.

“It was a first for the industry when we took green wood and put it through primary, then secondary, grinding, and dyed it as it went through the grinder to produce the colored mulch you see out in the yard,” he says.

Making high-quality compost also required the company to branch out into another field.

“We operate a large gravel mining operation at Lapeer, where we make different gradations of sand to mix with this compost,” Mullins says. “We make several variations of compost, [and] mix different grades of sand with this material. Some of it becomes very much like top soil; some of it becomes a planting mix, depending on different additives to the material; and some remains compost.”

Sand from the Lapeer facility will also go to the newly-acquired cement plant, and will be used in concrete for the roadway in MDOT’s expansion of I-69.

A first-time visitor to the Giddings Road facility will immediately notice that this isn’t  your average grinding yard. While nearly all grinding yards are a piece of land with heavy machinery — the 10-acre floor at Environmental Wood Solutions is concrete, with walls along the outside to separate different kinds of wood or product. Mountains of mulch, in hues ranging from black to earth brown to red, are piled high and ready for delivery.

Frequently, you’ll find the 51-year-old Mullins sitting at the controls atop of one of his massive grinders. Not even surgery for a broken neck could keep him away from work. He recently had several discs repaired and six inches of steel inserted in his neck on a Friday, was discharged from the hospital on Saturday, and was back in his office on Monday.

Prior to a recent haircut and beard trim, his long hair and equally long, bushy beard were more reminiscent of a guitarist in a Southern rock band than an astute businessman who’s as comfortable presiding over meetings with clients and lawyers in his conference room as he is perched on one of his machines.

And even when he gets behind the desk in the corner office of his modest one-floor building, two windows enable him to keep track of the volume of haulers rolling into the yard to drop off their valuable loads of trash.

The walls and surplus desk space are covered with family pictures; Mullins and his wife, Penny (“four cents short of a nickel”), are proudly expecting their third grandchild. Another office decoration — a large, stuffed head of a trophy boar on one wall — gives silent witness to his passion for hunting.

“That came from a friend’s ranch down near Jackson. I love hunting and I’ve gone all over the world to hunt,” Mullins says.

Larry Mullins’ story is that of a local boy made good. He was born in Lake Orion and never left. “I couldn’t find my way out of town,” he quips.

After graduation from Lake Orion High School, Mullins bought his first truck and began hauling scrap metal. By age 25, his fledgling Mullins Contracting Co. had 30 employees and an equal number of trucks. At age 30, he was up to 100 employees.

“In the late ’80s and into the ’90s, we reached a high of 70 trucks in the fleet,” Mullins says. In 1996, he flirted with retirement and sold his truck division to TBS Recycling of Pontiac, which was later bought out by Ferrous Processing & Trading Co.

By 1998, however, Mullins had the itch to try his hand at land development, but after completing 600 homes in Orion Township, he opened EWS in 2002.

Even though the company has 30 full-time employees, it’s clear that Mullins is on top of all of the operations. He carries two phones — one a cell phone, the other a walkie-talkie with a second phone line — at all times, and they’re constantly buzzing, demanding his attention. It’s not unusual for him to answer both at the same time, and to conduct as many as three conversations at once.

Mullins chuckles, remembering an encounter he had with a man as they stood in line in a restaurant, waiting to order lunch. “A guy behind me was listening as I answered the phones, [and he said,] ‘Hey, buddy, how do you remember what you were saying to the first guy when you got two other conversations going?’”

Although the company’s name suggests a wood-only operation, Mullins also accepts two other landfill discards: old tires and used roofing shingles, which he thinks could become staples in the business.

“We just started shredding tires six months ago, and we’re still working that out. We started recycling shingles last year for Ajax Paving Industries, [which] is in our yard on Eight Mile. We grind the shingles for them to make asphalt. We did 20,000 tons last year and will double that this year,” Mullins says.

Another environmentally friendly sideline the company has gotten involved in is land reclamation, using compost from yard waste to re-grow vegetation on areas where topsoil has been removed for mining operations such as sand and gravel pits. Mullins has a strong personal interest in this area of the company’s business.  Nearly half of his Lapeer facility’s 242 acres had been scarred by previous mining operations, leading him to start a reclamation project on his own turf. “We graded and re-vegetated nearly 100 acres,” Mullins says, “and now we use about 40 acres for our sand operation. We did another large site for the Edward C. Levy Co., in Macomb County. It was a depleted sand gravel pit with huge erosion problems [and] no vegetation, and we completely redid that site.”

His biggest coup in land reclamation is a 50-acre site of undeveloped hilltop at Dutton and Bald Mountain roads, not far from his Giddings Road operation. Today the property looks like a rolling meadow, with thick rye grass and wildflowers. Before Mullins bought the property from Oakland County in 2003, it had been an unsightly dump.

“We took 1.1 million yards of sand off of [the site], and used it to build the extension of Dutton Road at Bald Mountain Road,” Mullins says. “There wasn’t one single blade of grass growing anywhere after we took off the sand, and we brought it back using processed yard waste. It now looks just like a golf course. In one year, we vegetated a site that actually looked like a desert.”

Mullins declined to disclose the handsome profit he made selling the now very valuable reclaimed land to an investment group. “That one was dead nuts,” Mullins chuckles.

Perhaps the most notable variation from the wood and waste grinding at the Giddings yard was an assignment Mullins undertook a few years ago to crush 5,000 cases of domestic and foreign beer seized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“It was outdated beer, and we ran the cases through one of our grinders and drained the beer into a pond at the back of the yard,” Mullins says. “There were a few tears shed that day.”