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Progress: From paper and plastic to a purpose

Jeff Grunenwald, owner of GreenForest Recycling, talks about the expansion plans for his company. He hopes to double the size of his space in the Brainerd Industrial Center this year. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch1 / 5
GreenForest Recycling employees Donnie Hopp (left) and Donny O’Brian sort cardboard into a baler, which compacts the cardboard into transportable bales. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 5
GreenForest Recycling employee Donny O’Brian monitors a cardboard baler, which compacts the cardboard into transportable bales. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch3 / 5
Jeff Grunenwald, owner of GreenForest Recycling, shows how cardboard can be recycled to make more cardboard. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch4 / 5
GreenForest Recycling at the Brainerd Industrial Center processes paper into bales that it sells to other companies. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch5 / 5

For more than a century, the paper mill site in northeast Brainerd turned timber from throughout the area into paper.

Today, the paper mill is now the Brainerd Industrial Center, where GreenForest Recycling Solutions processes paper and sells it to companies who repurpose it for a wide variety of uses, including insulation and ceiling tiles.

It's a coincidence owner Jeff Grunenwald said he thinks about a lot.

"It just seems like it was meant to be," Grunenwald said.

Grunenwald started GreenForest Recycling Resources in 2013 after a career working for large waste haulers and recyclers. He hit a point in his career where he couldn't move much further up the ladder, he said, so after talking with friends in the industry, he decided to go out on his own.

"I just decided on a whim one day, that was it," Grunenwald said. "This is what's going to happen, just trusted God's guidance and it's worked out very well."

Grunenwald has spent 27 years in the waste management and recycling industry. He loves the process of taking something someone wants to throw out and creating it into something someone else can use, he said.

When Grunenwald first started his company, he worked as a broker to get materials from companies to end users who repurpose those materials. In 2015, he started thinking about getting his own facility. At the start of 2016, he began leasing office space at BIC, with a space for material processing soon to follow.

The space at BIC is a great fit for the business, Grunenwald said. The existing docks and high ceilings are excellent, he said, as well as the friendly BIC staff on site. There's plenty of room for truck drivers to get in and out, he said, and the security at the facility is reassuring.

"People say it's like Fort Knox," Grunenwald said. "And I say, 'perfect.'"

Some of Grunenwald's first customers included the local Cub Foods and the Brainerd Dispatch. He started getting material from Forum Communications Printing in Detroit Lakes, which led to getting his first baler, hiring his first employee and buying his first dock truck.

"Then I had to wave the white flag, I couldn't do it by myself," Grunenwald said.

At first, the business shipped out about one semitrailer load of processed cardboard each week, Grunenwald said, and a load of paper every other week. For the past few months, the business has shipped 5-6 loads of cardboard and 3-4 loads of newspaper each week, he said.

"That's how much that we've expanded in less than a year," Grunenwald said.

The business has grown from three local accounts to receiving material from five surrounding states, Grunenwald said. There are two shifts at the business to keep up with all the material coming in, he said.

The process

The business has trucks going out daily to pick up material for processing, Grunenwald said, both in the Twin Cities and locally. Local clients include printing facilities like Range Printing and the Brainerd Dispatch, he said.

The business doesn't process metal, Grunenwald said, so if any metal comes in, it goes to Crow Wing Recycling. On the other hand, Crow Wing Recycling sends its cardboard to GreenForest Recycling Resources.

"Everyone works well together," Grunenwald said.

Grunenwald works by determining which materials end users are looking for, then finding a business that handles a lot of that material. He then works with that company by doing a waste audit to find out what materials the business is throwing away. He performed a waste audit at the Brainerd Dispatch, he said, which resulted in a comprehensive recycling program.

"We'll help you with getting rid of that and save you money on that end," Grunenwald said.

Many GreenForest Recycling Resources customers are paper producers and industrial cardboard producers, Grunenwald said. A lot of the cardboard the company processes is shipped to a company in Wisconsin that makes the waffling layer inside cardboard, he said. The company has started shipping material to Michigan and will start shipping to the Chicago area soon, he said.

Plastic bales are shipped overseas to companies in China, Bangladesh, India, Germany and Hong Kong. The primary focus at the BIC location is processing paper, he said, while future locations in Hutchinson and Virginia will process curbside recycling.

A lot of companies in outstate Minnesota find it easier and cheaper to ship material to Brainerd than to Minneapolis, Grunenwald said, making his business an attractive option. He also focuses on education by working with companies on recycling plans to be able to process more of their materials.

"It's more of a partnership than being just their vendor," Grunenwald said.

Plans to expand

The business is adding a new baling system and a new sorting system this year, Grunenwald said, and will add about 25,000-30,000 square feet to its existing 30,000 square feet at BIC. Down the road, he'd like to have his own facility, with an education center where people can attend classes on recycling or the environment. He'd like to include solar power and a natural prairie environment as well.

"We want to tell a nice story, this is what we're all about," Grunenwald said. "It's not just processing, we're in it for the environment and making a better world out there."

Part of the expansion is going to include the installation of a sorting system that can process paper into a form to be used for making insulation, egg cartons or ceiling tiles, Grunenwald said. A new baling system will go next to the sorting system to maximize efficiency, he said.

The business currently has one baler for paper and another for plastic. The machine's purpose is to compress materials into blocks that can more easily be transported.

The business will be opening two new locations this year in Hutchinson and Virginia, Grunenwald said. The Hutchinson facility opens this summer and the Virginia facility opens Oct. 1. Both are county-owned facilities the business was contracted to operate, he said, and will process curbside recycling from the surrounding areas.

The goal is to have paper processed in the Hutchinson facility and sent to Brainerd to be sorted into a higher grade of paper, Grunenwald said. Then, bottles and cans from Brainerd can be sent to Hutchinson to be processed.

"Having other facilities gives us much more diversity," Grunenwald said, "and keeps us very competitive in the marketplace."

Grunenwald estimated he'd have three to four employees during his first year at BIC. Instead, he's up to 11 employees and planning an expansion. He offers good pay and benefits, he said, which is by design.

"I'd rather pay people more money and offer benefits than always have to be looking for help," Grunenwald said.

Grunenwald would like to add a curbside recycling program in the future, he said, which has been a goal of his.

"I've always wanted my own garbage company, since I always seemed to be running someone else's," Grunenwald said. "Down the road, that would be great, be a little bit more diverse."

By the end of the year, Grunenwald expects to add four to five more employees, bringing the total to 15.

• Business: GreenForest Recycling Resources.

• City: Brainerd.

• Number of employees: 11.

• Interesting fact: The company ships processed and baled plastic overseas to a variety of locations, including China, Bangladesh, India, Germany and Hong Kong.

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

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