MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum: Investing in equipment and employees

MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum: Investing in equipment and employees

Speakers at the second annual forum share how investments in equipment and employees pay off.

October 24, 2017
Megan Workman

Huge investments have been made in the recycling industry in the last 25 years, and with mixed results, Nat Egosi said in his opening remarks at the second annual MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum in Chicago Oct. 10.

Egosi led the one-day forum, which brought together 170 attendees, from plant and regional managers to owners, engineers, equipment suppliers and government officials. The event was hosted by the Recycling Today Media Group in cooperation with RRT Design & Construction, a Melville, New York-based consulting firm with significant experience in the MRF design sector where Egosi is president and CEO.

“Our focus is on the ‘process’ in the collect, process and ship scenario,” Egosi said in his opening remarks.

The sessions at the MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum focused on the processes of plants, from safety of employees to separation of materials. Material recovery facility (MRF) operators and equipment providers, among others, discussed ways to improve procedures, best practices for certain sorting equipment, how to effectively manage a tipping floor and a retrofit as well as the use of data in everyday operations, among other topics.

The day flowed in a conversational-style format, allowing attendees to ask a question or make a comment during any presentation.

Below is a rundown of each of the seven sessions at the MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum:

Running a retrofit

When it comes to managing a retrofit, speakers Jill Martin and Jim Marcinko said it is all about relationships. From employees to end markets and equipment providers, every relationship matters during a retrofit process.

Martin, recycling and resource recovery administrator for Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste in Wisconsin, expressed the importance of trusting contractors. Marcinko, vice president of recycling operations for Waste Management Inc. (WM), Houston, drove that point home, saying, “Become a partner with the installation team. Treat them like family, get to know them. That’s your livelihood they are doing.”

A reliable relationship also comes into play during the retrofit process when material pileups could be a concern. Marcinko suggested to not hold on to material. “Send it to someone else and make sure it’s a reliable relationship,” he said.

Martin agreed. She said, “We never would have been successful without the cooperation from the mills and the labor company.”

In addition, training employees on the new equipment is just as important, Marcinko said, as the controls mostly likely will be different.

Beyond relationships, Marcinko advised attendees to determine who has the best solution for a specific retrofit. Every facility is different, he said, and every retrofit is unique. “The lowest-cost proposal is not always the best,” Marcinko said. He added, “The better you manage it … the better your results will be.”

In her presentation, Martin shared details of the two retrofits the Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste facility has completed. In 2008, the facility disassembled and sold its dual-stream equipment. (The equipment was reinstalled in Emmet County, Michigan, for a total cost of $1.1 million to deconstruct, transport, store, engineer, refurbish and install.) The building and all production stopped for nine months during this transition. Martin said subcontracted employees were offered unemployment or employment at another facility while one subcontracted staff and a few county staff stayed on to do painting, cleaning, small repairs and assist with installation and loading operations. The transfer station was used as a tipping floor. Material was shipped to other counties for processing, including loose paper transported via trucks to local mills. This cost the facility an additional $44,000 in hauling and $125,000 in processing during the nine months of construction, Martin said.

In its second retrofit, Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste doubled its capacity, increasing processing from 45,000 tons per year to 90,000 tons per year. Other improvements included the addition of a mixed paper bunker, a redesigned container line and an additional dock door. Production continued through this second retrofit, a highlight Martin pointed out as “what we did right.”

While the county encountered several challenges, including fitting equipment in existing spaces and electrical issues, Martin recognized, “We had challenges, but we did a lot right.”

Being forward-thinking also is helpful. “Forward-thinking of what are investments and changes we’ll want to make later so we can better plan for it now?” Martin noted.

Martin said the future of recycling lies in robots. “Our next retrofit will have some of this,” she said of robotics.

Separating Do’s and Don’ts

These back-to-back panels, one focused on fiber and the other on containers, dug into best practices for three key equipment classes: screens, ballistic separators and optical sorters.


Moderator Egosi started the session by noting China’s proposed import ban on certain scrap imports, including mixed paper, is mostly due to contaminated loads of imported baled recyclables. Cleaning up quality is a must.

“China is not very nice to us these days,” said Pieter Eenkema van Dijk, CEO of Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, Stamford, Connecticut, and a speaker on the fiber panel.

Van Dijk said he has seen two actions occurring in MRFs that are affecting the way recyclers sort paper: Some recyclers are changing screens to nonwrapping screens. Others have invested in optical sorting equipment. “There’s a new way to approach single stream today, a completely different way,” Van Dijk said. “Instead of sending smaller material to screens, send it to an optical sorter. I think eventually we’re going away from screens because you can positively sort the paper and negatives can go to optical.”

In reference to China’s import ban and its proposed 0.3 percent limit on contaminants, Rich Reardon, managing director of Max-AI for Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon, and another panelist, asked, “Who didn’t see this coming?”

Reardon said investing in plants and ensuring the entire system is “commissioned to perform” as it should is important. This includes “making sure the screen is set to the specification provided and that discs are in good shape,” Reardon said.

As for using screens to collect more old corrugated containers (OCC) from the stream, Reardon suggested operators change the screens in different zones.

“Should we be focusing on one mixed paper grade and pull out OCC or can screens be modified?” Reardon said. “You need to look at the opening on screens by looking at the balance on the system.”

Speakers said plastic film makes up about 5 percent of MRFs’ inbound streams. Reardon suggested using optical sorters and air to remove film. Bypassing a screen also is an option. 

Van Dijk said film “is a huge problem” and “it cost a fortune just to sort film.”

David Marcouiller, executive vice president of sales engineering at Machinex Industries Inc., Plessisville, Quebec, and another panelist, confirmed the difficulty of removing film from the stream. “Film is hard to get out and when you do, it takes good fiber with it,” Marcouiller said.

He said the bulk of labor in MRFs today is spent on the fiber line, pulling out film and OCC.

As for fiber quality concerns, Marcouiller said using ballistic separators also can be helpful. “As soon as you separate the material by size, you can really attack the problem in a different way,” he said of ballistic separators.

When collecting material in colder climates, where snow and ice, and therefore wetness, thrive, speakers suggested lowering screens. Additionally, Marcouiller said agitating the material more often can make a real difference.

Marcouiller said, “Packer trucks are getting better at packing material. … [You] need to agitate material throughout the system.”


Speakers on the containers panel said it is a matter of space and capital investments to make the necessary moves that will permit MRFs to sort flexible packaging and glass, among other containers, more efficiently.

Nick Davis, senior cost estimator for CP Group, San Diego, said the industry is learning to adapt to these changes. This is especially true considering Davis said MRFs’ inbound stream of flexible packaging is expected to increase to 3 percent to 5 percent.

“Flexible packaging is here and I don’t think it’s going away,” said Davis.

He added, “There are a lot of different things to consider. It will require rethinking of the MRF and how we recycle materials.”

A decade ago, the containers MRFs were sorting were mostly used beverage containers (UBCs), said panelist Michael Drolet, solution sales manager for Steinert US, Walton, Kentucky. Today, inbound streams include UBCs, plastics Nos. 3-7, glass and aseptic cartons, among other containers.

“We need to rethink our process flow to adapt to what we’re getting in the bin,” Drolet said.

He said drum magnets in MRFs started as a trend about five years ago. “The right drum magnet will always be more expensive, but will give you cleaner steel,” Drolet said.

However, Davis recognized the reality of accepting any and all materials at the MRF, saying, “We don’t have space to store every possible commodity. There’s market economics and also physical economics.”

Speakers addressed the question, “Can I improve something to better introduce material to equipment?”

Panelist Scott Jable, director of North American sales for Stadler America LLC, Colfax, North Carolina, suggested adjusting the angle of the screens. “I always adjust the angle first; the steeper you run your screen, the less contamination.”

He said star screens and ballistic separators have the same idea in mind: trying to get 3D material to go airborne. If a flattened polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle is stuck between two pieces of paper, recyclers should avoid overrunning their screens.

“Try to run your system at what it was designed to or designed with a reasonable throughput,” Jable said. “If you overrun your screens, you’ll bury everything.”

Jable said most of the issues with optical sorters are mechanical. Overrunning the sorter and not cleaning valves or putting them in the wrong place can cause disruptions.

Davis said CP Group has seen a number of MRFs add optical sorters, which are an alternative to disc screens.

Davis said, “Optical sorters, fed correctly, can do everything we’re asking them to do, it takes space and money. Nobody has really been willing to spend that much money.”

He added, “There are a lot of competing issues working on the economic side, but optical sorters are going to continue to evolve.”

As for robotics, Davis said he sees this type of equipment and optical sorters as competing and also complimentary to each other. 

War Stories

An open forum, the War Stories session welcomed attendees to share various challenging encounters they have had running their plants.

Dwayne McDonald, who works at Republic Services’ Fort Worth, Texas, MRF, shared a story of the time a bag of cash passed by sorters on the line. He described workers jumping around and a safety concern. No one was hurt, and the cash was pulled off the line and dollars picked up off the floor.

Jon Schroeder, general manager at Lakeshore Recycling Systems, headquartered in Morton Grove, Illinois, detailed a quick story when a live grenade showed up at the yard. “Our day got better as soon as [the fire marshal] left the yard,” Schroeder said.

Dem-Con Cos. President Bill Keegan shared an incident when a line worker shouted, “I got a gun!” before letting everyone around him know that he had just pulled it off the sorting line. “No one knew it was on the line,” Keegan said. It was an airsoft gun, and no one was hurt.

Figuring out the floor

At a single-stream MRF, turning off the faucet is not an option; feedstock is continuous. To manage this stream efficiently, Balcones Resources has a controlled receiving process, said speaker Joaquin Mariel, general manager for the Austin-based company. Balcones stores its residential and commercial loads on opposite sides of the tipping floor. With the loader in the center of the room, Mariel said the operator wastes less time this way. The loader also is used for audits; the less people on the floor, the better.

Mariel said, “We have enough tip floor space for four trucks. We monitor it effectively and the customer is happy.”

Speaker Brad Dunn, Cincinnati market recycling manager for Rumpke Waste & Recycling, outlined several factors to consider when figuring out the tipping floor: safety, fire/access, traffic flow, floor/walls, equipment and productivity. Another factor: considering which way the wind is blowing. Dunn sad building a MRF based on the wind’s positioning will help to keep material contained, and the property clean.

“Which way is wind blowing? You’ll pay more cleaning up your property,” if wind direction is not considered, Dunn said.

As for what the floor is made of, Dunn said concrete is king. “We’ve tried all kinds of concrete,” Dunn said of Rumpke. The company has settled on ballistic concrete. Dunn said this concrete type is durable, and while it costs more up front, it’s worth it.

Another cost that Rumpke realized is worthwhile: a trailer tipper. Rumpke’s Cincinnati MRF sees 18 trailer loads a day of single-stream material, Dunn said. The trailer tipper is “a highly used piece of equipment,” he said.

With so much incoming material, Dunn noted that scheduling is important. Don’t let the tail wag the dog, he said. “Work with the people that are bringing you the material,” Dunn said.

He added, “Who owns the floor? Your operators have to own the floor.”

Dunn expressed his concern for fires at MRFs, especially due to lithium-ion batteries. Rumpke has had nine fires in 2017 at its Cincinnati MRF, mostly due to lithium-ion batteries, Dunn said.

Straightening out Safety

While there aren’t any secrets in safety, there are best practices and ways to boost the morale and work ethic of employees to ensure a safe environment. Speakers Jerry Sjogren and David Lewis shared habits each of their companies exercise that encourage workers to show up to work daily with safety in mind at all times.

“Oftentimes we hire people because they have a pulse. We have to do due diligence in order to ensure we’re safe,” said Sjogren, safety director for E.L. Harvey & Sons, Westborough, Massachusetts.

Get to know the rules and regulations in your area, he said. With marijuana’s legalization in some states, Sjogren said you can still test for this drug. In addition, spend time with new hires going over safety and training them. E.L. Harvey’s safety philosophy is the same as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ (ISRI’s): Safely or not at all.

Be aware of bullies who have worked at the facility for years picking on new hires. Many times, Sjogren said, it’s the “older senior guys” who are making a lot of mistakes because they are comfortable.

Sjogren and Lewis expressed the value in empowering workers. The more entrusted workers feel, the more likely they will report close calls and near misses, Sjogren said. Listen and respond to concerns.

“If you can get your people empowered to come to you, those are leading indicators,” Sjogren said. “It’s knowing people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing that you know you’ve got a good culture.”

Lewis, director of safety, recycling, at WM said, “We empower all of our workers.”

People learn by observing, said Lewis. Develop programs around safety. Show new hires photos of at-risk behavior and fall protection. WM uses a PowerPoint presentation to show new hires the company’s safety standards. “You have to start basic,” Lewis said.

People also want to be awarded and appreciated, Sjogren said. E.L Harvey & Sons has 20-25 percent annual turnover—two-thirds is the company discharging the employee, one-third is voluntary.

Turnover in this industry is “pretty immense,” Lewis said.

To boost morale, Lewis said WM recognizes safe behavior with cookouts, message boards and by celebrating milestones. The company also allows forklift drivers to paint and decorate their forklifts. “If you can paint your forklift, will you take better care of your forklift? Yes,” Lewis said.

“Be creative,” he added.

WM also encourages preshift stretching, Lewis said. “Make everyone feel like they are an industrial athlete, because they are,” he said.

“It’s really up to the employer to mentor and show respect,” Lewis added.

Digging into data

Figuring out which materials are worth sorting for a MRF is a challenge in itself. Speaker Jim Ford, general manager at Royal Oak Recycling, Royal Oak, Michigan, identified the “Three Commandments of Evaluating Recyclable Material Streams”:

  1. Know Thy Buyers and Sellers (including material, quality specs, volumes, shipping/collection needs and pricing);
  2. Understand Thy Operation (including plant capacities, material, space, upgrade or mix and cost); and
  3. Determine Thy Opportunity Cost (including volume and capacity, asset usage, margins and strategy).

“How much grief do you want to go through to meet your margins?” Ford asked.

Bill Keegan, president of Dem-Con Cos., Shakopee, Minnesota, said it’s all about end markets. Without end markets, it is not worth sorting certain materials. “One of our challenges in the MRF is volatility,” Keegan said.

He said he has seen gains in revenue sharing models where revenue from commodities sold is split 80/20: 80 percent goes back to the customer, 20 percent to the MRF. This fee-for-a-service model is being implemented more often, he said.

“Get a recycling contract that weathers high and low,” he said.

As an industry, Keegan said there is not enough communication between packaging designers and recyclers. “Evolving material requires an evolving MRF,” Keegan said. He supports the hub-and-spoke model of MRFs as well as the use of optical sorters and robotics.

Examining employees’ efficiencies

Managing your workforce begins with respecting employees. That was the message from some executives at Leadpoint Business Services, Phoenix, who led the last session of the MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum.

Leadpoint specializes in productivity work with MRFs to help improve output, said Pat Hudson, vice president of sales and marketing for the company.

“When talking about safety, motivation and teamwork go hand in hand, we’ve heard that all day today,” Hudson said.

He outlined the key factors for a worker’s success: attention to detail, tolerance for the conditions and ability to work with others.

Asking nonessential questions is another idea Hudson shared. Asking a potential worker if they get carsick is one way to figure out if he or she has motion sensitivity, a concern for the job.

“The No. 1 rule for hiring is to help them be successful so you can get more tons,” Hudson said.

He added, “Don’t sabotage the candidate with self-fulfilling prophecy. Set the candidate up for success.

Ted Horton, vice president of operational excellence, shared a story of a facility in Reno that had gone through seven leaders in three years. “Churn and burn,” Horton said. Leadpoint suggested looking outside the box. That facility hired a leader from big box retail; he had never worn a safety vest or worn steel-toed boots.

However, the new leader brought so much more. “What he brought us was a ‘Can-do attitude,’” Horton said.

“Retail at its core is about people,” Horton continued. “He was always smiling, said thank you. He encouraged pride in his work.”

The underlying root cause of the turmoil at the Reno facility was not technical, it was leadership, Horton said.

“Every employee needs to add value,” Horton said. He added that peer-to-peer accountability is what makes a team successful.

The MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum was Oct. 10 in Chicago at the Marriott Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile.