Sustainability Profiles: Richlite

Photography Courtesy of Richlite

Richlite, a material made from resin-infused, pressed paper, was originally used by the aerospace industry to make molds and mock airplane noses. That was back in 1943 when the company was first established in Tacoma, Washington. It’s still based in Tacoma, but today Richlite is used by a wide array of industries in a surprising variety of applications. Richlite products meet UL Greenguard’s standards for low volatile organic chemical (VOC) emissions, are made of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified recycled and virgin paper, and contribute to LEED credits. They use a waste-to-energy (WE) Technology developed onsite that creates self-sustaining energy for a significant part of the manufacturing process. Knowledge Bank spoke with Richlite’s national sales manager, Melinda Stickle, as part of our series profiling companies with innovative sustainability initiatives.

A Maker’s Material

Richlite is what Stickle calls a maker’s material: it’s extremely versatile, so it can be used to make products as varied as cell phone cases, skateparks, cutting boards, and cabinetry. It’s a dense, durable, water-resistant material that’s easy to sand down, cut, and modify, without compromising its integrity. Boeing continues to use Richlite for industrial tooling, it’s used by the commercial food industry, the marine industry, in consumer products, automotive manufacturing, and by the architecture and design industry. Popular A&D applications include furniture, exterior cladding, shelving and cabinets, commercial and residential countertops, and architectural millwork, including wall panels and doors.

Stickle showed us some of the applications for Richlite in the office and at her home: “My desk is made of a piece of Richlite, our office walls are made of black Richlite, the exterior of our building is Richlite. At my house, you’ll find it everywhere – coasters, pens, cutting boards, cooking utensils…” This diversity in application is in part what makes Richlite such a sustainable material—there are always different ways to reuse, refurbish, upcycle, and reassemble even the smallest pieces. 

Richlite encourages clients to reuse the material and also offers a buyback program. “We’ve bought back quite a few projects and either resold them or donated them,” Stickle told us. “We find that a lot of clients will reuse the materials, whether for the same application or not. That’s something we’re encouraging our clients to do and something we’re pushing for internally as well.” In one recent case, recently a Richlite conference table and reception desk in a local design office were reutilized by their team of contractors, who refurbished it and brought it back to their own office.  “It’s easy to reassemble,” Stickle said. “It’s an incredibly dense and hard material, so you can sand the surface and rejuvenate the pieces.”

How it’s Made

Richlite is made up of 65 percent paper and 35 percent resin. Stickle explained the manufacturing process: “We start with large rolls of paper, these roles are four or five-foot-wide and can range from 15000 to 30000 lineal feet.  These large rolls are then infused with resin, dried, and cut at 8, 10, or 12 feet. The saturated sheets are then hand stacked and weighed to achieve the final panel thickness.  After which the panels are placed into a panel press and heated and cured into the final product.” Nearly all of the paper that goes into Richlite is 100 percent recycled, managed, and certified by FSC. This single chain of custody (CoC) certificate allows consumers to trace the product from the final vendor to the distributor, Richlite, the paper mill, the paper mill’s source, and so on, providing a complete picture of each stage in the material’s life cycle.

Waste-to-Energy Technology

At Richlite, sustainability started taking off in the 1990s. “Here in the tide flats in Tacoma, there’s a lot of manufacturing that goes on, a lot of pollutants in the area, and trying to lower our impact is crucial,” said Stickle. Looking for ways to reduce their impact, Richlite began to develop a WE Technology. The WE Technology, implemented in the 2000s, was created in-house and is trademarked by the company. Through this process, a significant part of the manufacturing becomes a closed-loop cycle, producing its own self-sustaining energy as it cleans the exhaust it yields.

Photography Courtesy of Richlite

The resin used in Richlite is diluted with methanol and ethanol, a special in-house additive in order to saturate the paper thoroughly. After the paper is soaked in resin, it’s dried before being pressed, and this is where the WE technology comes in. Stickle explained the process: “In order to dry the paper, we heat our drying stack to about 600o F. At that temperature, when you add methanol or ethanol, it creates exhaust. We capture that exhaust and run it through an oxidizer, which circulates the VOCs through a chamber, scrubbing them and destroying them. As the exhaust circulates, it creates 900o of clean heat in the chamber. We only need 600o to dry the paper, so with the use of heat exchangers we reduce the heat and plumb it back into our drying stacks.”

Photography Courtesy of Richlite

What are the effects of this process? “Basically, we take the exhaust, scrub it clean, and use the heat from the exhaust to dry our paper. We barely have to turn our natural gas on in order to get the process running. We turn it on to get it heated up, and then after that, we turn the natural gas off and it becomes a completely closed-loop cycle.” By destroying the VOCs, the heat that’s created is 99.9-percent clean air. Stickle told us that because they’re able to generate their own energy through the resin, they’ve been able to reduce natural gas consumption by 80 percent and CO2 emissions by 50 percent. “It doesn’t make a difference for our final product, because the additives evaporate during the drying process, so whether we use WE Technology, methanol, or water, it doesn’t change the final product.”

Looking to the Future

Richlite is constantly looking for new ways to lower their carbon footprint, and to better recycle and reuse their waste. They’re also exhaustively examining each piece that goes into the manufacture of Richlite to determine where there’s room for improvement. In addition to their buyback program, and figuring out new ways to reuse Richlite itself, they’re also thinking critically about other materials: “We use release paper on each sheet when it goes into the presses and we’re trying to find a way we can reuse those sheets. We could just throw them in the recycling, but we’d rather cut out that waste and find ways to reuse the same product multiple times during manufacturing before we have to dispose of it.” 

Photography Courtesy of Richlite

And beyond certifications and green building rating points, Stickle contended that “it’s even more important that we’re specifying products that aren’t just sustainable, but that are made in a sustainable way. Ethically, we all have to find a way to lower our carbon footprint and there are many sustainable products out there, but if you really start to investigate how they’re made, you realize that they’re not as sustainable as they seem. You have to look past the surface level.”