MRF Operations Forum 2018: Operating a dynamic MRF

MRF Operations Forum 2018: Operating a dynamic MRF

MRF operators and equipment suppliers look at how MRFs and their sorting systems are responding to today’s market-related challenges.

October 29, 2018
DeAnne Toto

Above, from left: WM's Jim Marcinko, Republic Services' Mark Henke and
Nat Egosi of RRT Design & Construction

Material recovery facility (MRF) operators gathered at the third annual MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum Oct. 16 in Chicago at the Marriott Downtown Chicago Magnificent Mile to discuss strategies for meeting China’s tighter quality specifications and the overall need to clean up the quality of domestic recyclables. 

Jim Keefe, publisher of the Recycling Today Media Group, the forum’s organizer, greeted attendees by saying, “When we started this event, it was because MRFs had evolved so much in terms of technology and investment.” Because of China’s new quality parameters, he continued, “leveraging that investment is more important than when we kicked off this forum.”

Keefe also introduced the new, shortened name for the event: the MRF Operations Forum.

Nat Egosi, president and CEO of RRT Design and Construction, Melville, New York, who aids in planning the event, said China’s ban on imports of certain types of recyclables has made it difficult to sell some scrap grades, adding that that “lack of liquidity … has led to landfilling of some materials.”

Egosi said MRFs are “buried in material, slowing down lines and retrofitting to try to turn the corner” in terms of quality.

“MRFs are aging rapidly, and many operators realize their facilities are nearing end of life, prompting the need for capital investment at an inopportune time,” he continued.

He reminded attendees that the MRF Operations Forum is the only event solely designed for MRF operators. “We don’t discuss mill markets and buying practices or the collection side of things, but MRF best practices and sustainable and safe operations,” Egosi said.  

Dynamic MRF Operations

Following Keefe’s and Egosi’s introductions, panelists Mark Henke, senior manager of recycling for Republic Services, Phoenix, and Jim Marcinko, vice president of recycling operations for Houston-based Waste Management (WM), took the stage for the session Dynamic MRF Operations. They discussed the changes they have made at their companies to respond to the changing marketplace.

Henke said Republic Services is “looking at making the best quality material that we can because the best quality wins.” He added that the key right now is to keep material moving, even if it is low prices. “Markets will choose the best material they can get. Our job is to make the best quality material.”

To achieve this, Henke said Republic has slowed down its separation systems, allowing the material to have more contact time to improve separation. “It costs a lot more because we are pushing less tons though the system.”

Henke said the company also is keeping up on its preventive maintenance of its sorting systems to ensure they are performing as they should.

Regarding screens, he said you “can’t clean them enough. They are nothing but a conveyor if you are not cleaning them.”

He also said it was important to train employees on the hierarchy of the materials to pick and to clearly define everyone’s role. “Don’t have them go after everything,” Henke suggested.

He continued, “If you see a lot of plastic bags, and one person is in charge of that, you can go back to that guy to see what went wrong.”

Henke said the average residue rate has increased to 20 or more percent, adding that residue increases maintenance and displaces other commodities in the recycling stream. “If we can take 20 to 5 percent or 25 percent to 15, think of how much better we can operate,” he said.

Marckino said, “Roughly 30 to 60 percent of the material we are processing has no value, whether residue or glass.” 

He stressed the importance of auditing material and understanding composition and recovery rates.

WM has been “putting robotics through their paces to see how they work for us” and is implementing optics in more places in the plant, Marcinko said. However, he added, artificial intelligence (AI) “is still a ways off on taking away some of the management of the system.”

At this time of transition for the recycling industry, Marcinko said WM’s “workforce is most important.” He added that the company cross trains employees to ensure nimbleness across its operations. WM also shares quality performance data with its sort staff daily and has empowered line leaders to drive performance, he added.

“The lowest labor costs don’t always result in long-term operational success and cost savings,” Marcinko said. “You need to pay what you need to pay to get quality labor.”   

He said the keys to dynamic MRF operations include understanding a MRF’s daily performance, using the right equipment and monitoring its performance daily and empowering the labor force by being open to their ideas for improvements.

Henke said competitive wages are key to attracting and retaining good employees, particularly sorters. He also said that it is important to understand their needs and make improvements in their working environment by installing dust collection and misting systems and having reasonable work hours. 

He added that Republic Services uses incentives to aid in retaining employees. He said the program is “well-devised” and based on improved labor hours and recovery improvements and includes appreciation lunches, recognition and communication. “Engagement and recognition are very key,” Henke said, advising attendees to listen to their sorting staff “because they are out there every day.”

Regarding whether to add labor to be able to make a China-spec news bale, Marcinko said WM determines that on a case-by-case basis, adding that in some areas, it may not make sense to invest the capital needed.

Henke said Republic’s operations staff and materials marketing staff work hand in hand to know where material is being shipped and to adjust labor accordingly.

When it comes to MRF managers, Henke said Republic uses standard operating procedures (SOPs) to provide them with initial guidelines. He added, “We work with metrics so they understand what their goals are and know what levers to pull when the metrics change.”

Marcinko said, “As we look to hire new people, we want dynamic operators, not someone who is rigid and cannot adjust. We need a higher caliber of manager.”

He continued, saying that MRFs are manufacturing facilities, but they are not creating a standard widget ever time for one or two markets. “We need someone who can follow processes but be able to adapt the on the fly.”

Getting Technical: Fiber Line Management

Panelists for the next session, Fiber Line Management, were Bruno Lagace, CEO of Sparta Manufacturing, Notre Dame, New Brunswick; Nick Davis, senior cost estimator for CP Group, San Diego and Ben Eule, director of Stadler U.K. Ltd., Ashford, England.

Davis said the diversity of plastics recycling is creating challenges for MRF operators, as are tightening paper markets. “We need a place to put the rest of the outthrows or they become residue in a lot of systems,” he said.  

Lagace said end users are in good position to decide what contaminants are acceptable and at what level, but the goal for most MRF operators should be to get their commodities closest to the raw form as possible, which mean reducing contamination to the greatest extent possible.

Eule suggested removing the smallest and largest material from the stream as early as possible to produce the best fiber quality.

Davis said MRFs are still producing sorted residential papers (SRP) and mixed paper, but he acknowledged that markets are in flux. “It’s politically motivated right now. China wants someone’s material,” he said, adding that that country is letting in more European material than American material.

Moderator Egosi noted that ONP generation has declined 30 percent to 40 percent compared with what it was nine years ago. He asked the panelists if it made sense to make a SRP and ONP grade.

Davis said if MRFs were able to achieve the split, it could yield them $80 to $100 per ton more. “We need to squeeze every bit of profit we can out of these facilities,” he said. 

Regarding the presort line, Davis said the burden depth has gone way up because there is no machine in front of it helping. He added that 3D trommels and auger screens can allow you to cut the volume of material going to presort and burden depth. “Forty percent of workers’ comp claims are from needle sticks,” he said. “There is no need presorters should even see that material.”

Egosi asked the panelists they knew of a better way than air systems to address the issue of plastics bags at MRFs, which he said could account for up to 5 percent of the inbound material stream.

Davis said expensive labor should not be used to handle material that weighs nothing and has no value. However, he was not a fan of air systems, saying, “Sucking sucks so don’t suck.” He said pneumatic systems are high maintenance. He suggested using optics to sort plastic bags instead.

To improve old corrugated container (OCC) recovery, Davis said the shaft-to-shaft gap was key to determining what goes through screens and what goes over then. He suggested using bigger shafts with smaller openings. “The more browns you can get out earlier, the better everything else operates,” he added.

Getting Technical: Container Line Management

The Container Line Management panel featured Pieter Van Dijk, CEO of Van Dyk Recycling Solutions (VDRS), Stamford, Connecticut; David Marcoullier, executive vice president of sales engineering for Machinex, Plessisville, Quebec; and Rich Reardon, vice president of sales and marketing for Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon. 

Reardon said it is “really important” to make quality container bales. “It’s not a choice,” he said, adding that many containers are used domestically.  

Van Dijk said a low angle on a 2D/3D screen generally will result in clean containers, though he added that containers could be lost to the paper line, creating contamination within those grades and lost revenue from the container line.

He added that VDRS was moving away from using traditional screening toward using sizing screens. Positive sorting of paper with size separation can better control paper quality, Van Dijk said.

Marcoullier compared the growth of flexible packaging to that of Tetrapak containers a few years back, saying, “You can find return on investment in new equipment if there is a market for the material.” However, he added, “The market viability remains unproven as of yet.”

Marcoullier said more than 80 percent of flexible pkg follows the paper in a MRF, and optics could be employed to sort that material from the fiber line.

Regarding the near collapse of the Nos. 3-7 plastic bale market, Marcoullier said building a MRF with right flexibility in bunkers and sorting capabilities key to MRF operators ability to respond to such market changes.

Reardon added, “All optical sorters can be fine-tuned to respond to market. We want to provide a flexible MRF, and that’s what we try to do.”

Regarding the role of robotics and AI in the MRFs, Reardon said AI can give MRF operators a read on quality and help them adjust their systems accordingly.

Van Dijk said his company is making its second version of its robotics technology. “It won’t be a big winner for a manufacturer like us,” he said. “It will have its place.”

Reardon stressed that optical sorters and robotics are complementary technologies. “You can’t beat the speed of an optical sorter,” he said, adding that it needs the backup of a quality control sorter. “Robotics are looking to take the place of the QC sorter. That is the proper place of robotics in our industry.”

In the Q&A period the involved the panelists from both Getting Technical sessions, CP Group’s Davis said labor accounts for roughly half the lifetime costs of a MRF. He added that equipment is getting better, helping to reduce the need for labor in a MRF. He added, “A machine is more consistent and produces higher quality over the long term than people.”

When it comes to recapitalizing MRFs, Van Dijk said he thought we’d see a combination of retrofits and remodels. In both cases, “downtime is a huge problem,” he said.

Lagace said retrofits would be a better option because markets in flux. Once the present market-related issues are settled, he said he thought it would be best to go with new system.