Can Metal Plating Be Green? Phylrich Thinks So

Can bad luck ever be a good thing? It was in the case of Phylrich International, a decorative plumbing company whose plating facility was decimated by fire in May 2001. The Burbank-based firm turned the setback into an advantage, however, by taking the opportunity to incorporate ecologically friendly materials—as well as pollution-reducing techniques—into operations at its replacement plant. Corey S. Dubin, president of Phylrich and son of its founder and CEO Alfred R. Dubin, speaks about the fire and how it allowed the company to rethink its ways.

David Sokol: Tell me about the fire.
Corey Dubin: On Cinco de Mayo 2001, our 40-year old facility on Orange Dr. burned to the ground. We lost everything-the entire plating department, all records. But we did not fight the fire: If we had, the chance of nickel or other substances coming out would have gone up significantly. So we let it burn. That left us at square one both devastated but also with a very unique opportunity to do something different.

DS: How so?
CD: For our new 36,000-sq.-ft. Burbank facility, we started to look at the kinds of things we didn’t want in our plating line, like cyanide in our gold and black nickel. So we began to search for [alternatives] and we succeeded. We’re very happy and proud about that. We’re already locked into contracts with our suppliers-there will be no glitch in our system when [the state of California] bans cyanide. And more than all of the above, eliminating cyanide puts our people in a safe working environment.

We also moved away from airborne coating, which raises issues of volatile organic content (VOC). We moved to what is called E-Coat-it’s a plating bath [a mix of chemicals that cause a reaction that attaches metal plating to a fixture]. The E-Coat has a California Air Quality Management District variance saying that the VOC is so low, you don’t have to have a special permit for it.

Another thing that we did was reduce waste water. With our closed-loop system, there is no sewer hook-up. After precipitating out the metals and the filter press, we installed a reverse osmosis system. Our end-product water is cleaner than most L.A. County drinking water. The other water we don’t send out, we send to an evaporator to drive our scrubbers [which polish the finished work].

The goal was to create the most environmentally friendly object we could. In the future, we want to run pumps and swamp coolers [an energy-efficient alternative to air conditioners] to cool the plating department. Eventually we also want to generate hot water from flat plate collectors that we will install on our roof. As technology evolves, we will continue to alter this line to make it as environmentally friendly and safe for our workers as possible.

DS: Is this the first time Phylrich has embraced green design?
CD: Our original facility was built in the ’60s, before the EPA. I came into the business having done environmental work in Santa Barbara, Calif., from both the advocacy and planning sides. So one of the things I did early on at the old facility was begin to upgrade it. We switched from hexvalent to trivalent chrome, which doesn’t cause liver damage. People said it couldn’t be done, but we searched and searched and found a trivalent chrome; customers didn’t notice any difference in the quality of the products.

In 1999, we also began a phased monitoring system of the old site, with soil, vapor, and gas studies. We drilled five wells on the site to take ground water samples to see if there was pollution. I received verbal numbers on the samples and we breathed easy, because the numbers were not bad. We did not find many pooled heavy metals. For a decorative plumbing company that has a plating facility, to do your own monitoring is unheard of.

DS: Now that the old site isn’t being used, what are your plans for it?
CD: It’s in Hollywood, on the border of L.A. and Hollywood, so it’s a very attractive site. First, though, we felt we needed to get the clarifier out [the clarifier removes potentially dangerous metals from the plating process’ waste water], we needed to get the soil samples to understand if there was going to be a cleanup of some magnitude.

DS: Your environmentalism background notwithstanding, why has Phylrich made such a commitment to green building?
CD: Compliance is not only good from a legal standpoint, but also is profitable. Platers are notorious for being non-compliant polluters-uninterested in talking to regulators, openly hostile to regulators. They need to rethink how they look at the regulatory structure, and how they look at health and safety.

We don’t want to get out of what we do. Plating is an art, we still do it by hand, and we’re very good at it. We don’t want to lose it. At the same time, we want to be able to sleep at night-we don’t want to give our platers cancer or pollute the neighborhood. That’s how we’re looking at not only the plating part of the business, but the entire business.

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