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Southeast Ohio: Our state's second Polymer Valley

Southeastern Ohio Polymer industry is booming. Photos courtesy of PolymerOhio
Southeastern Ohio Polymer industry is booming. Photos courtesy of PolymerOhio

Polymers have been big in Ohio for nearly a century. Since cementing its reputation as the birthplace of modern plastics in 1929, the Buckeye state has become a world leader in polymer production, employing more than 140,000 workers and generating nearly $50 billion in revenue each year.
But while northeast's "Polymer Valley" -- the five-county area surrounding Akron that long fed off rubber production for the automotive industry, home to 45 percent of Ohio's polymer production sites -- has always had the lion's share of the spotlight in polymer circles, a cluster of companies has built its own power base in the state's southeastern corner.

Twenty-one chemical and polymer companies based in the Marietta, Ohio-Parkersburg, W.Va. metro center, producing billions of pounds of polymers each year, have forged Ohio's second polymer valley, employing more than 4,300 workers and helping feed the state's economic growth.

"What they've done is quietly become an important polymer cluster for the state," says Wayne Earley, president and CEO of PolymerOhio, an Ohio Edison Technology Center focused on enhancing the Ohio polymer industry's global competitiveness and growth. "A number of things we use every day, from coffee cups to adhesives, plastic wrap, and even things we take for granted like headlight covers, now probably get their start in one way or another in that area."

Anchored by large, international polymer producers like Americas Styrenics, Kraton Polymers and Solvay Advanced Polymers, and surrounded by small-to-midsized companies that specialize in turning their products into finished products, it's become the second-largest polymer concentration in the state.

Drawn to the area by access to power and easy transportation, the area has hosted polymer production since the 1950's boom, when Union Carbide built a sprawling, 350-acre complex along on State Route 7 just south of Marietta. Coal, readily available from nearby West Virginia, fueled several power plants needed to feed the company's plants, while the Ohio River provided transportation advantages.

By the 1980's, Union Carbide had broken up the site, selling it off to other companies. Today, it is the center around which the largest polymer producers revolve. Both Americas Styrenics and Solvay, with a combined workforce of nearly 500 employees, can trace its production facilities back to the 1950s.

Solvay came to the area in 2001. Headquartered in Belgium, the international polymer leader purchased the former Amoco Performance Products at the old Union Carbide spot, and soon set upon expanding to include a sulfone polymers production line at the site. Today, it specializes in specializes in polysulfone resins and monomer, which are used in automotive, medical and aerospace products.

Americas Styrenics, with multiple production lines of polystyrene and an adjacent research and development facility and laboratory, arrived in 2008 on the site for the former Chevron Phillips. It produces first-stage polystyrene -- pellets at the end of its creation -- for eventual use in food and drink packaging, CDs, electronics and medical equipment.

The area's longest resident, Kraton Polymers, employs 380 workers at its plant in nearby Belpre, just south of the former Union Carbide site. The company, which pioneered the production of copolymers, built it plant in 1971. It specializes in Kraton D polymer, which is converted for use in products as widely varied as tennis shoes to construction, a key component of adhesives and asphalt modification.

"We produce different polymers, but we all make the real 'building blocks' that, in turn, get shipped somewhere and become products that consumers recognize," says Ken Bowen, the plant manager at Americas Styrenics.

Those blocks are usually small, white, BB-sized pellets of the polymer that have been made in large containers on the company's sites -- hardly recognizable as in their eventual products.

But those end-results are ubiquitous, Bowen adds.

"They're the coffee cup and lid you get from the drive-through in the morning on the way to work, those clear films that you wrap food in, the lining at the bottom of your chocolate box to the foam insulation in your walls," he says, admitting that he has a habit of constantly looking for Americas Styrenics products.

"I sort of annoy my family sometimes, turning over a cup in a restaurant to see if it's one of 'ours,'" he laughs.

The presence of the larger companies has also fed a swarm of small-to-mid-sized businesses who take those polymer pellets to make their own products, many only a stones' throw from the Route 7 hub.

Dimex LLC, which opened in 1991 nearby, turns recycled plastics into landscaping products, masonry, marine products and office supplies from a 220,000 square-foot plant on the site. Two other companies, Flexmag Industries, located just northeast of downtown Marietta, and Magnum Magnetics, west of town, both specialize in turning polymers into flexible magnetic sheeting, strips and extrusions for multiple purposes. Meanwhile, RJF International Corp., has a plant that produces wall coverings and mats, some of which get used on U.S. Navy ships.

Slightly further up the highway, in Reno, Mondo Polymer Technologies opened its doors in 1994 with the goal of reclaiming polyethylene plastic to produce guardrails, wheel chocks and containers.

More than a dozen smaller companies on the Ohio side of the river, combined with a strong polymer presence across the river in Parkersburg, W.Va., have staked out the area's position as another polymer hub.

"They have a complete supply chain," explains Earley, "from the larger companies making basic polymer pellets, then other companies taking those pellets and turning them into something else and others recycling the used materials. It feeds itself."

Another reason for their success, though, has been the companies' willingness to work as partners, rather than separate entities. According to Bowen, plant managers from most of the firms meet regularly.

"As strangely as it may sound, we're a pretty tight-knit group," he says. "We get together to talk about production issues, safety issues, business -- anything that might affect the polymer business."

As it turns out, that's not all that strange in today's market. Under the auspices of trade groups like PolymerOhio and the Ohio Chemistry Technology Council, cooperation has been key to Ohio maintaining its leadership role in polymer production.

Governmental aid, too, in the form of $100 million in research and development investments from Ohio Third Frontier funds, has helped, too. From 2006-2008, the state reported 200 new or expanded polymer facilities, pumping billions into Ohio's economy. That expansion continues, with projects like Mondo Polymer's recently completed 40,000-square-foot expansion.

Meanwhile, polymers continue to take center stage in Ohio's economic outlook.

"If you look at Ohio's other key industries, they're medical devices, the auto industry, aerospace and aircraft, food packaging… in all of them, polymers are critical," says Earley. "So, not only is the polymer industry important in itself, but it's crucial for the growth of other Ohio industry. The cluster of companies around Marietta, like entire polymer industry, has a ripple effect across the entire state."

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