In the mid-1950s, forward-thinking businessman Eric Layfield took a chance on an up-and-coming product: plastic. For 20 years, Layfield Plastics cranked out signage, name tags and acrylic displays to meet surging demand.
“It was a different world back then,” says current CEO Tom Rose, who bought the business in 1978. Over time, as people became more and more aware of the effects commonly used products can have on the environment, plastic-happy clients who once cared mostly for cost and convenience morphed into savvy customers with real concerns about the impact polyethylene and other petroleum-based products have on the ecosystem. “We face all the typical negativity about plastics in the ocean and in landfills, and we recognize that’s something the consumer—and the world—is worried about,” says Rose. “We’re trying to provide solutions.”
Explaining this to anti-plastic people, however, isn’t always easy. Accordingly, customer education has become a big part of the work Layfield does. Rose likes to use the example of the unassuming paper bag, which many consider to be a greener choice at, say, the grocery store. “But when you actually look at the total environmental impact,” he explains, “it takes three times as much energy to make that bag as we can use to make an equivalent polyethylene product.”
In fact, Layfield has found ways to make plastic production pretty efficient. Every product the company makes begins the same way: “It all starts with a plastic pellet, polyethylene, which we extrude into a film or sheet,” says Rose. That plastic sheet might be converted into any number of seemingly unrelated products: a flexible bag to package nuts for retail sale; a liner (officially a “geomembrane”) meant to sit atop a water reservoir; or a vapour barrier used in walls in newly built residential construction projects. It is also used to make Aqua Dams, which are patented large plastic tubes that provide an environmentally sound means of preventing floods. “Fill them with water and you basically have water diverting water, which can save a house or hospital, or whatever the structure might be,” says Rose.
To satisfy client demand and an internal social responsibility mandate, products are recyclable and compostable whenever possible. Layfield factories themselves “recycle everything and waste almost nothing,” explains Rose.
It’s efficiencies like these that make Rose think he and the 100,000 other individuals who compose Canada’s plastics business—400 of whom work at Layfield—are effecting real change in a sector not always known for boasting high levels of innovation. “Most people don’t realize it,” he explains, “but plastic is actually a very interesting and exciting industry to be a part of right now.”