SALUTE TO INDUSTRY: Inside Berry Global’s Lanett plant

Published 9:00 am Saturday, January 27, 2024

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Don’t call it a bucket. Well you could, but technically it’s a pail, or a container if you must. The Berry Global plant in Lanett should know, they make a lot of them, roughly 25,000 to 30,000 a day.

Berry Global, is a plastics manufacturer with over 250 facilities around the world. Their different facilities produce various products, from the cups at AMC movie theaters to the wrapping film on meat in the grocery store. Eight plants make pails, each with different manufacturing capabilities. In the Lanett plant, they make the three-and-a-half to seven gallon ones seen in home improvement commercials.

The plant runs through about 45,000 pounds of resin every day. At their height, they went through twice that. They make the lids. They have a team devoted to printing logos and text for companies on the pails. But, one of the most interesting capabilities of the plant is recycling.

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“One of our highlights is we have one line that’s dedicated to [recycling] and several that we can convert [to make pails], any of the scrap we make we grind it back up and we run it back to make new pails,” said Mike Clem, the plant’s manager.

Instead of injecting hot resin into the mold to create the pails, they reheat the grinded up pails with imperfections to make better ones. In a business like plastic manufacturing, waste can often be overlooked. Clem and Berry Global are looking at ways to cut down on that waste.

The company has a program called Operation Clean Sweep, which is focused on reporting and containing any spilled resin. Even if the spilled resin doesn’t leave the plant it must be reported. The plant also uses guardrails around creek beds, and other safeguards when loading and unloading containers.

“I like the fact that we have very little scrap that leaves the facility that we produce,” Clem said.

A reader may be asking at this point, ‘how does one make a pail?’ First, you’ll have to put on a hairnet, some steel-toed shoes and a pair of earplugs.

Once through the doors of the plant, the noise of the machines and movement makes one thankful for the earplugs. There is a line of large machines spitting out pails. Workers are moving around carrying stacks of white pails and studying data on the machine’s monitors.

A large vat at the top of the machine heats the resin to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the product. Inside the machine, a square mold made of two metal parts closes and the resin is injected. It stays closed while water is run through to cool the liquid into a solid.

Then, a pail pops out and onto a conveyor belt, where two arms pop handles into the top of the new container. A baby warning label is stuck on the side and the pails are stacked. The whole process takes less than a minute start to finish.

The work is not solely done by machines, but rather by the 105 employees of the Lanett plant. The reason there are imperfect pails is because heating resin is a science. Too cool or hot and it is mis-shapen or has holes. The operators adjust pressures and temperatures as they go. Some must operate three or four machines at a time.

Workers are constantly moving, picking up and stacking pails, checking for small imperfections, which will be tested again by a quality control team. Once stacked on the pallets, what can only be described as a giant Roomba pushes the pallets to the warehouse where forklift operators stack them again but in larger piles.

If a company wants a logo on their pails, a special team of printers operates those smaller machines that print or stamp the desired image. Some workers make the lids, putting rubber gaskets around the lip of the lids. Another group is quality control. Every three to four hours they take a pail from a line and run tests on it to make sure they are identical to the other tens of thousands of pails the plant made that day.

Those are the workers on the floor, but there are many other jobs, from drivers to HR representatives that keep the plant going.

Clem’s hope is that the employees enjoy coming to work at the Lanett plant saying, “I want you to go tell your neighbor, ‘I work in Berry and it’s great. You’ve got to come up there.’”

To do that, he is working to make Berry Global not only known in the community but a part of it. The plant has sponsored Springwood School athletics, rec center teams, and a police department calendar every year. Last year, the company participated in the Valley Christma parade, Clem said proudly.

Berry Global has become more involved with the local training programs. At Southern Union, they are a part of the FAME program, where a company sponsors a student to come work for them a couple of days a week. One of the students ended up being hired.

“Injection molding is a vast world of experience out there. But we have it right here in the backyard. Process the machines and learn how the heating and cooling changes … There’s more to it than just pushing the button out. And I think for kids that are interested it’s something they could get into and actually make a new career out of,” Clem said.

Inside the plant, Clem and his team are finding new ways to unite their employees. There is a box in Clem’s office full of bright blue football jerseys with “Bucket Masters” on the front, which were handed out. As you walk into the floor, there are TVs. One has a rotation of pictures submitted by employees with the caption, “Who are you safe for?”

One effort that employees got a kick out of were TikToks that were directed by Clem for a companywide project. The fan favorite was a video of a cartoon pail, which sings a parody of ‘I’m just a Bill’ from the show School House Rock, changed to “I’m just a pail.” Lyrics and vocals by Clem.

“We want people to see us, see us as a part of the community and not just that building that they drive by,” Clem said. “I want people to know that we want to be part of the community, and we want to be a place people are proud to come work.”