2019 MRF Operations Forum: Operators share insights from their retrofits

2019 MRF Operations Forum: Operators share insights from their retrofits

MRF operators highlight the benefits of their recent retrofits.

October 28, 2019
DeAnne Toto

Material recovery facility (MRF) operators encounter a number of variables from day to day that affect their operations, including changes in the incoming material stream, staffing challenges and variable quality requirements of the mills they supply with material. These factors as well as the evolution of sorting technology mean that MRF retrofits are inevitable.

MRF operators shared the results of their recent facility upgrades during the 2019 MRF Operations Forum, which was organized by Recycling Today Events in partnership with RRT Design & Construction, Melville, New York. The forum took place Oct. 22 in Chicago at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile. Nat Egosi, president and CEO of RRT, moderated the session, which included Joaquin Mariel of Balcones Resources Inc., Austin, Texas; Miriam Holsinger of Eureka Recycling, Minneapolis; Tom Riek of Pioneer Industries International, Itasca, Illinois; and John Pausma of Homewood Disposal Service, Homewood, Illinois.

Balcones Resources

Over the course of three months, Balcones Resources completed a $6 million retrofit earlier this year. The company sought to further automate its Austin MRF while also improving throughput, maintaining quality, lowering maintenance and expanding its overall “basket of goods,” Mariel said. He added that Balcones wanted to do something innovative that would provide the company with a model to use at is moves forward.

Balcones underwent what Mariel described as a “pretty lengthy vendor selection and design process,” noting that it “took the better part of two years.” He added that the company “knew when we weren’t getting what we wanted,” and Mariel encouraged processors to tell their vendors when their plans fail to address the processors’ objectives. His advice to processors was: “Trust yourself as a processor and the experience you bring to the table.”  

Mariel said Balcones used modeling to help the company arrive at the “right answer” regarding the retrofit, and he suggested processors select their vendors based on their desired results and their compatibility with the processor’s culture.  

Balcones used equipment from San Diego-based CP Group, Louisville, Colorado-based Amp Robotics and Bakersfield, California-based Sierra International Machinery in its most recent retrofit, upgrading its 2D/3D separators and glass breaker screens, automating its fiber and container line quality control and increasing its baling capacity.

Mariel said Balcones “absolutely could not just shut down” during the retrofit and ran “limited capacity bookended by small acute periods of shutdown” to execute the equipment installations.

Communication and planning helped to make the retrofit successful, he added, noting that Balcones’ operations team was fully integrated into the project. That team was given an incentive plan with a very specific budget for the project and shared in any savings that resulted. The installation team also was integrated into the MRF’s daily operations using radios.

Mariel added that the team most likely “overcommunicated” throughout the process, convening meetings twice per day with daily vertical reporting. Because of this, he added, “When we needed to ask for additional resources, we were not hitting people with surprises.”

Balcones simulated the conditions of retrofit before the retrofit began, Mariel said. “If we figured it out as we went, we wouldn’t have been as effective.”

The company supplied its staff with specific work plans with primary and secondary daily objectives throughout the process, he said, adding, “The staff felt a lot less stress around the retrofit because of this.”

Mariel said the help Balcones received from its vendors was “critical” and he advised other processors to be open to input from their suppliers throughout the process.

Thanks to the retrofit, Balcones was able to reduce its headcount per shift by 43 percent while increasing its throughput by 25 percent. Screen maintenance declined from 2 hours per day to 30 minutes per day as well.

Eureka Recycling

Eureka Recycling is a nonprofit social enterprise that believes waste is preventable, not inevitable, said Holsinger. The organization handles the municipal recycling contracts for Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and processes roughly 100,000 tons of recyclables annually.  

The company opened a dual-stream MRF in 2004 before transitioning to single stream in 2014. The first retrofit to that facility was completed in 2016, while a second retrofit took place earlier this year.  

Holsinger said Eureka was “not satisfied with how things were operating,” noting that there was “too much aluminum and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) in the paper.”

In 2016, Eureka added a scalping screen, a second eddy current separator and a second ballistic separator from Canada-based Machinex, with U.S offices in High Point, North Carolina. She said the company also increased its operating hours to 60 hours per week at that point to increase its throughput. Holsinger added that all the organization’s MRF staff are full-time employees “with full benefits and living wages.”

Eureka was seeing too much polypropylene (PP) at the end of the line as the plastics were overwhelming the original optical sorter. The organization also wanted to increase its PET capture rates, which prompted the 2019 retrofit. The facility also needed to add a second baler, with Holsinger saying that most MRFs of Eureka’s size would already have had a second baler installed, but the MRF was sending most of its paper to a local mill unbaled, so it was able to get away with one baler until recently.

Eureka added a new single-eject optical sorter to sort PET, which involved moving its magnet and eddy current separator to accommodate the new optical sorter. Its existing optical sorter was redirected to sort paper and PP instead of paper and PET.

Following the changes, the MRF was able to increase its PP capture rate by two to three times with its most recent retrofit, Holsinger said. Additionally, staff only needed to work one Saturday after the installation was completed because the changes increased the MRF’s overall throughput.

Pioneer Industries International

Pioneer operates a single-stream MRF in Oklahoma City that processes 1,500 tons per month, Riek said. It was originally opened July 2013, adding a drum feeder and a PET optical sorter in December 2016, which was followed by a fiber optical sorter in February of this year. That installation allowed Pioneer to go from eight sorters to two.

As a result of the addition of the PET optical sorter, Pioneer saw a 15 percent increase in its recovery of that material while reducing labor costs through the elimination of four sorters, he said. The company also saw an increase in high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and used beverage can (UBC) recovery because the optical reduced the burden depth on the conveyor. Pioneer realized a return on its investment in that optical sorter in 3.6 years, Riek added.

As a result of the more recent addition of the optical sorter for fiber, he said Pioneer was able to eliminate six sorting positions. While the return on this installation was longer at just more than four years, Riek said, “It will pay us back for years to come.”

He added, “Labor challenges have us looking to increase automation as much as possible in part because of the reliability.”

Homewood Disposal Services

Pausma said Homewood’s first 20-ton-per-hour single-steam processing system was installed in 2000. It was replaced by a 50-ton-per-hour system in 2009, which was retrofitted in 2013 and again in 2018. That most recent retrofit was the subject of his presentation.  

The retrofit replaced Homewood’s stacked ONP screens, which he said were difficult to access to address the film that was wrapping around the stars. The MRF’s finishing screens also were replaced because of the marginal throughput and separation the company was seeing on its angled screens and the constant adjustment required as well as the expense associated with changing the screens’ stars.

Homewood replaced these screens with 440 nonwrapping screens from Van Dyk as well as with ballistic separators from the company. The MRF also updated interior technology in its seven existing optical sorters, Pausma said.   

He added that prior to the retrofit, Homewood had to slow down its processing lines to meet quality constraints. “The material coming in has gotten worse,” Pausma said, adding that contamination on incoming material often exceeds 20 percent. “There is no easy way to deal with that. It has to come off the line or make it to the end of a line,” he said. “We are facing different economics as processors than we ever have before.”

With the retrofit, Homewood sought to increase its throughput, increase recovered fiber quality, reduce its star-related expenses, improve its PET and HDPE recovery and prepare for future retrofits. Pausma said these objectives were realized, though the company was unable to reduce the amount of trash coming off the line.

He said the stars were lasting significantly longer, reducing the MRF’s expenses by 50 percent. Additionally, Homewood went from using four sorters who spent 2-and-a-half hours to clean the screens on two shifts to three sorters who spend 20 minutes to clean the screens on two shifts. The retrofit’s return on investment was less than four years, Pausma added.

He said the company learned that retrofits are not easy and that communication is key to their success. Additionally, the job is never done, he said, as technology and the incoming material stream continue to change.

Next year's MRF Operations Forum will be Oct. 20 at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile in Chicago.

*This story was edited Nov. 4 to delete an error regarding a screen replacement that was not part of Eureka's most recent upgrade.