MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum: Running a safe plant

The importance of running a plant safely was a recurring theme of the inaugural conference.

October 19, 2016
Recycling Today Staff

Providing a thorough “nuts and bolts” approach to properly running a material recovery facility (MRF), especially with challenging markets, was the focal point of the inaugural MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum, held in Chicago Oct. 17-18.

The one-day forum brought together about 130 attendees, who heard presentations on steps that MRF and recycling plant operators should take to successfully run their facilities.

According to many of the plant operators in attendance, what set this event apart from other recycling-related conferences was the depth of the coverage, which focused on immediate steps operators could (and should take) to have a more efficient operation.

The sessions touched on a range of topics, including the changing ANSI standards for safety, how to operate and maintain screens at MRFs, optimizing plant operations, baler maintenance and how to maximize the efforts of staff.

Opening the one-day event was Nat Egosi, president and CEO of RRT Design & Construction, a New York-based consulting firm with significant experience in the MRF design sector. In his remarks he sketched out some of the core issues that confront MRF operators: hugh investments being spent in difficult markets; many MRF owners/operators lacking confidence in their business; close to half of the material being processed at MRFs being processed poorly, meaning great opportunities for better-run operations; and a changing waste and recycling stream and the pressure that puts on the operator.

MRFs are seeing less fiber and more plastics, including more nonrecyclable plastics. There are shrinking opportunities to receive clean loads and the dump and bale approach, Egosi said.

On the flipside, Egosi noted that pressure to improve quality comes with a cost, one that MRF operators need to consider. “Do you chase that last bottle, and at what cost,” he pointed out.

For paper, still a significant portion of the recycling stream, Egosi noted that old news (ONP) continues to decline as a portion of the stream, while residential mixed paper is growing. Also, more prohibitives, including wax corrugated and wet strength fiber is being included in the stream. Materials such as these are a challenge for operators.

Susan Eppes, president of EST Solutions Inc., a Texas-based firm focused her remarks on safety. In her opening remarks, Eppes pointed out that the rate of nonfatal injury incidents at MRFs was 8.5 per 100 workers in 2012, a figure far greater than the average. More surprising, the injury rate was much higher than even the average injury rate for workers in the overall waste industry.

In addition to the safety of employees, Eppes also noted that from Feb. 1-July 31, there have been 150 fires reported at MRFs throughout the country, though undoubtedly there have been many more that have not been reported to fire officials.

How to reduce the chances of injuries to employees requires a serious commitment by MRF operators. This can start with working with equipment manufacturers who provide a complete risk assessment. She pointed out that operators should look for insight from manufacturers as a way to tap expertise where it is available.

Following that, ensuring a routine maintenance program for the equipment. For example, Eppes noted that “If you don’t maintain the screen then you increase the risk of injury. You have to maintain the facility,” she stressed.

To support this concept, she noted that most incidents occur when the balers are gammed, the screens are jammed or the bunkers are jammed.

Other steps that MRF operators can take to reduce the chances of injuries is to engage with employees on a regular basis to hear from them and walk around the plant observing where possible trouble spots may be. Be observant, she noted. Also, many of the most tragic accidents occur when staff are working alone, repairing equipment or doing “hot work.”

At the same time Eppes encouraged operators to conduct periodic reviews of the plant operations to see where there may be trouble spots and potential safety concerns for the company.

One final point that Eppes made in why plant operators should strive for greater safety runs to the bottom line. The actual cost of a slight injury may only be a few thousand dollars. However, with profit margins so slim, to make up for the loss would require a significant amount of additional tonnage to make up for that loss. (To hear a short interview with Susan Eppes, conducted prior to the forum, click here.)

As a follow up to Eppes’ discussion, the afternoon session was an open forum titled “War Stories.” During this 90-minute session, attendees discussed some of challenges, dangers and safety issues that they had to deal with.

One attendee, acknowledging that his plant has had a few fires at his plants, noted that the batteries have been one of the biggest challenges to deal with, and are often the culprit with fires. In her earlier session Eppes noted that Rumpke, an Ohio-based MRF operator, had a fire that was caused by batteries being mixed in with a load of fiber.

Other near disasters and near injuries discussed in the open forum was one attendee who said a compressor was missed on the sort line and ended up being baled, which caused a huge explosion. While no employee was hurt by the explosion, the operator said a fire inspection official said the explosion was about the same as what would be caused by a stick of dynamite.

Another operator noted that a potential disaster by his company after taking in a container that was included in a drop off box and made its way to the sort line. The container emanated a particular smell. After pulling the container off the line it was discovered that the material was equipment used to make crystal meth. While joking that it could have been a scene from “Breaking Bad,” the reality is that the process and equipment used to “cook” the drug is highly combustible and could be extremely dangerous. “If you have material that smells like ammonia call the authorities,” he said.