Recycling Advocate Looks to Spurt Sustainable Change
Consultant Kurt Duska helps clients go green as he lives out his love for the Earth as a novice farmer, and rodeo rider.
By Karen Hanna
Kurt Duska is a man who believes in redefining potential.
From working on injection molding machines to finding new life for the products they create, to taking on the rigors of rodeo in his 40s, the recycling consultant sees maximizing value as his calling.
Where others see broken glass, he sees filler for cement; when others were ready to toss thermoset waste, he gathered it up, ground it up, and used it as a power-blasting substrate.
A novice farmer, he gives his animals manure to his neighbor, who uses it on his fields to grow crops he shares with Duska’s horses and sheep.
Even when it comes to his own blood, Duska believes in reuse — he has given more than 41 gallons of platelets, meaning Red Cross specialists have stuck him with needles hundreds of times, as they have run tests and mined a life-saving resource that only about 10 percent of adults will donate in any given year.
On the day he met Kelly, the woman who would become his wife, Duska said he knew she was the one. Here’s a man who knows a good thing when he sees one.
Since getting his start as the founder of D&D Plastics Inc., which merged with Engineered Plastics Inc. in 1988 and eventually grew to include recycling divisions in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, he’s now looking at second-chance opportunities, working to turn trash from companies, nonprofits, and educational institutions into treasure through his firm, Kurt Duska Sales and Consultants. He recently spoke with Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna.
How did you get your start in the plastics industry?
Duska: My dad had a tool and die
shop, and I worked there ... sweeping floors when [I was] 12 years old. And then, he and a couple of his buddies started up a small molding shop. When I was 15, there was a person on third shift who quit, so for one summer, they said, “You’re on third shift, running that press.” So, I started, rode my bike to work, worked third shift, molding slot track [for toy cars] out of HIPS. When I got there, they said, “Just pull the hopper. Don’t worry, it’ll run all night.” Well, at about an hour in, the machine stopped, and I’m looking at manuals trying to figure out what’s going on.
I went through high school and college [from] running third shift to being a third-shift foreman. One month out of college, I quit to start my own molding shop with a friend of mine who was more of a tool and die guy. We bought our first few molding machines off of Erie Plastics Inc.
I ended up buying out my father’s business within two years [in 1990] and starting up an assembly facility and a couple recycling facilities.
I have to say one of the biggest parts of my career was being mentored by some of the legends in our industry.
It was a little bit easier to start a molding shop back then. You didn’t have to have the full infrastructure now, between quality [control] and HR and all the other complexities in business. It’s very difficult, very costly to startup, which is a shame because I think there’s less opportunities for smaller companies.
Back then, we all borrowed from each other and shared. If someone was short of resin, you could buy it from one of the other [companies] in the industry. If [business was] slow as a molder, one of the bigger companies would a lot of times give you work to help you out.
Are you still involved in injection molding?
Duska: I sold all my ownership of Engineered Plastics eight years ago. I’ve stayed on in new business development, helping anywhere I can. As of right now, they just hired a president for Engineered Plastics, so, I’m now kind of stepping aside.
We had four facilities, 250 employees, about 300,000 square feet.
How did you get into recycling?
Duska: I was on a flight in 2007, coming back from a trade show. I’m talking to the person next to me, and she worked for a major medical manufacturer. She said, “The biggest thing is, I hate seeing our product going to waste in hospitals.” She said, “I wish I could recycle it.” Being an entrepreneur, when you hear, “I wish,” that’s an opportunity, so, we ended up working with this Pennsylvania medical manufacturer and Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center and Penn State University’s plastics program.
We put together a state grant application, and in 2008 we were awarded a half million dollars, and we purchased Erema equipment. At that point, I had no customers, no supplied material ... and within, I think, a month I had it booked. The opportunity was incredible. We had the best equipment in the world running, and that opened up a lot of doors.
I ended up starting up another recycling facility in North Carolina. [It’s since closed.]
Considering how many plastic parts you’ve made as an injection molder, how have you felt about transitioning into recycling?
Duska: Especially now that I’ve been in this industry so long, I don’t think our industry ever really thought about the sustainability side, because, if you look at it, there’s no opportunity to recycle multiple products [such as] vacuum cleaners and coffee makers. At the end of life, there’s no opportunity there because we didn’t design for recyclability. The last 15 years, I’ve reinvented myself. Who better to get involved with recycling and looking at this than someone that put [plastic parts] in [the waste stream]? I guess it’s like a criminal becoming a police officer; you know all the good, the bad and the ugly.
How has your work as a medical materials recycler evolved?
Duska: When we got into recycling, I always looked at the medical side. I was working with another medical manufacturer on a presentation for the
CleanMed conference to encourage sustainability in healthcare. We were on an elevator, and the sustainability director for the Cleveland Clinic was on the elevator with me, and I asked, “Can we start up a program?”
During that time, we were founding members of the Healthcare Plastic Recycling Council, where we got 10 of the largest medical manufacturers in the country involved to start looking at what the issues are in medical recycling.
I think we’re getting closer and closer to where we’re going to be able to offer medical recycling, when we standardize streams at some of the hospitals and other nontypical recycling spaces.
It’s such a challenge to work in post-consumer in the medical industry because we have to worry about how you collect it and that you collect product that’s safe.
I’m really following the new technologies, especially chemical recycling, where you don’t have to do as much separation. I think those new technologies will allow us to handle previously difficult-to-recycle waste.
You have to get in front of these problems. I knew I would probably never make money on hospital recycling, but if someone didn’t look at what the opportunities are, what the issues are, we don’t have a chance of fixing it.
What gave you the confidence to believe you could build a successful business as a recycler?
Duska: I think that being open to opportunities and not being afraid to make mistakes [is important].
I’m always worried; I hear that “consultant” word, I feel kind of dirty. But I think once you get this far in your career, my job is to protect my customers from the stupid things that I’ve already done.
If you work hard, you take care of your customers, you take care of your people, you have a pretty good chance of succeeding, as long as you understand what the opportunities are.
I never put together a business plan. I would say most of my quotes I do in my head; my designs are on napkins. A little bit of luck, hard work. Recycling had to improve. When people are throwing out valuable material, there’s definitely an opportunity.
I built a good network. I always say if I’m the smartest person in the room on any one subject, I have the wrong people around me. I’m good at putting a program together.
What advice and services do you provide to clients as a recycling consultant?
Duska: Maybe I’ll start with the C-suite, but I come in and I change, and I go out to the garbage cans. We go out to the compactor. We tip over garbage cans, and we map these things: “OK, what can we do with this?”
Most of the time, we can do something.
It doesn’t always have to be about recycling. I’ve worked on minerals and glass and all kinds of stuff over the years.
A lot of times, it’s looking at packaging use.
We really have to look at things differently.
We would help customers switch to recycled content. We would save our customers typically 30 percent on the material costs utilizing recycled content. I’ve had customers make products from zero to 50 to 100 percent recycled content.
Black is the new “green.” If you want to use recycled content, make your product black.
It isn’t always [about] making a dollar. On the smaller end, it could be with the local food banks, giving advice on how they can recycle. I try to donate my time to nonprofits and other organizations to help them improve their recycling and sustainability.
Where do you see recycling efforts heading?
Duska: I think the biggest thing has to be design for recycling. You have to understand what the limitations are for recycling, whether it’s mechanical or chemical. This has to be pushed at the university level, that the students coming out of there start to understand the concept of design for recyclability. Recycling doesn’t come by accident.
I spent a lot of years just working with these companies trying to figure out the best methods and a lot of design-for-recyclability guidelines. It opened a lot of doors for me, so I did a lot of post-industrial recycling for these customers, and it helped build my reputation in the industry. I think recyclers need to do more than just recycle. I think we need to be pushing for change.
Just because you’re in plastic, doesn’t mean you should be limited to plastics. I’ve gotten into paper, I’ve gotten into silicon-label backings. Anything that has volume has an opportunity to be recycled, I believe.
We’re starting to see some of these larger companies all working together …Exxon and Nova and Dow, all these companies working together to fix problems. Their decisions they’re making working together may not maximize your income, but it will maximize impact.
How long will this evolution to a circular economy take?
I don’t see it ending. We have continuous growth in population and consumption, so we need to do everything we can to make it a circular economy.
We need comprehensive design guidelines. Whether it’s an incentive or a tax on a poorly designed process or landfill, I think we need to have a national stand on eliminating waste going to landfill, especially plastic waste.
I think part of it has to be either with a deposit or legislation just because
[using] a landfill is cheap.
The idea will have a short-term effect on the injection molder, but what are we going to leave? We don’t recycle for ourselves; we recycle for our children and grandchildren, so we need to be making an impact now. It may be painful; it may be messy for 10 years.
The other thing is logistics. Plastics is pretty light, so, trying to get enough pounds on a truck to make it make sense to ship it [to be recycled] and make environmental sense is difficult. I may have to have another company handle my customers’ products on the other side of the country.
That’s why I'm looking at some of the newer, smaller chemical recyclers, and their more modular systems, where they’re running maybe a couple hundred-thousand pounds a week, instead of extremely large [batches].
I would love to see regional support both for mechanical and chemical recyclers in the major metropolitan hubs.
In addition to changing your professional focus from molding to recycling, you’ve taken up farming. Tell me about that.
Duska: My daughter wanted to learn to ride [horses], so, while I was there, I started taking lessons. So, nine years ago, I never rode a horse, and now I have 70 acres, two horse trailers, three horses. We run rodeos, I have sheep, we do roping. I competed at the American Quarter Horse Congress. I guess that's been my life ... looking at new opportunities and learning from it.
I now have this new horse. He’s 4 years old. He wasn’t really broken. And now I’m racing him. It’s kind of a joke: Most people keep time on a stopwatch, I’m timing him on a calendar on our runs.
While shoveling horse poop, you can be at peace with the world.
In spring, we had friends, my daughter's friends, they live in town, and the neighbors were complaining because [their] sheep were making too much noise. They can be loud! I knew I was in trouble when I drove home, and I saw two sheep in the back of the minivan. All they do is eat and poop; they don’t have much other purpose in life. You always have a smile on your face when you’re petting a sheep.
We’re going to convert a couple acres to pollinator fields and have a habitat for bees and butterflies. I try to do best practices, whether it’s farming, whether I’m putting in a driveway [considering] what are the best fields to put in, what to plant, crop rotation.
What other current projects have captured your attention?
Duska: I would say 80 percent of my life now, especially on the business side, is focused on sustainability trying to figure out what’s good. I’m doing work with the Pet Sustainability Coalition ... recycling pet food bags from retailers.
I would say horse and pet owners are typically very environmentally conscious. A Tractor Supply [Store] would be a perfect partner. You have to look at who sold the product, and can they take it back? Is it worth it for a brick-and-mortar [store] to have customers coming back to drop off feed bags? I believe that it builds loyalty both for the brand and for the retailer to set up these returnable programs.
What lessons have you taken from your experience as a farmer?
Duska: I think you get old when you stop trying new things. You’ll learn more from a horse than you will from anything else, in my opinion. When you’re [struggling with] a horse, it’s almost always you’re not telling the horse to do the right thing. You’re not telling them what you want to do. I think that’s locked in in business, too, that leaders have Kurt Duska tries to give platelets every two weeks. The process takes a couple hours. problems because they’re not communicating what they need and they’re not working with a team to develop it.
Instead of me just kicking the horse with my spurs on, the issue is I’m not telling him what I need to do or what I want to do. I think it’s been a very humbling experience. While a manager may come down on the team, most of the time, I think it’s probably the manager’s fault for not communicating, not training, not putting in the time.
What has inspired you to be a blood donor?
Duska: Someone I worked with, she was getting a double-knee replacement 22 years ago, and they had to have people donate blood for her.
I went in, and I found out I had a type that was better for platelets. I ended up donating.
Two of the biggest contracts that I ever received, I was donating blood. Coincidence?
Since the pandemic [while] I’ve had no travel, I’ve donated every other week since they started up, so, I’m trying to do 24 donations a year right now.
I kind of get Get Out of Jail Free cards for all the stupid stuff I’ve done in life, so I keep donating. It’s one of the few things I’m good at.
How would you like to be remembered?
Duska: A father, a husband and someone who believes one person can make a difference.
WHO IS HE: Kurt Duska
COMPANY: President, Kurt Duska Sales and Consultants, a recycling consulting firm (www.kurtduskaconsulting.com)
FARM: Black Horse Farm, Girard, Pa.
HORSES: Smoke, Fuego and Medusa
SHEEP: Cheech and Chong
NUMBER OF BLOOD DONATIONS: 245-plus