MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum: Increasing inbound quality

More than 100 attendees met for the inaugural forum, which covered topics ranging from metrics and education to contamination and infrastructure.

October 19, 2016
Megan Workman
Equipment & Products Material Handling Equipment Municipal / IC&I Paper Plastics Sorting Equipment
Contamination in recycling streams continues to be a challenge for material recovery facility (MRF) operators, increasing their need to focus more on inbound materials as well as ensuring residents are educated on recycling right, according to the speakers of the inaugural MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum, held in Chicago Oct. 17-18. 

Organized by the Recycling Today Media Group, in cooperation with RRT Design & Construction, Melville, New York, the forum was scheduled ahead of the group’s annual Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference, which is set for Oct. 19-21. 

Attendees of the interactive forum included plant managers, maintenance managers, regional managers, owners, consultants, engineers, government officials, equipment suppliers and other professionals interested in better understanding plant operations and technology.

Sean Duffy, president and chief operating officer of MRF operator ReCommunity, Charlotte, North Carolina, and a speaker in the “Plant Optimization” session, said the contamination—what he referred to as NPM, or nonprogram material—that finds its way into the bales of recyclables MRFs produce often originates in curbside bins. Contamination in incoming loads has become such an issue that if a customer brought in just 1 percent less contamination annually, ReCommunity would save $1 million per year in costs, he said.

“All of our lives would be a lot easier if the quality was there,” said Duffy.

He added, “The key is getting out those NPMs earlier.”

Duffy said he has been in the recycling business for more than 30 years, and nonrecyclable items from engine blocks to trees “are a reality we deal with every day.” Plastic bags, or film, wrap around equipment in every MRF across the country, with Duffy pointing out that twice a day, every day, on every shift workers use the lockout/tagout system to clean screens.

Cal Tigchelaar, president of MRF operator Resource Management Cos. (RMC), Chicago Ridge, Illinois, and another speaker in that session, said he was running 1,000 tons per day, which has dropped to 650 tons per day. The root of the problem? The presort area, he said.

“I’ve lived in the same house since 1992 and have never received a piece of information telling me what I can and cannot recycle,” Tigchelaar said.

At the end of the day, Duffy said, “you’ve got to track everything you do.” 

Measuring a MRF’s performance was much of the focus of the Plant Optimization session. Lou Perez, director of MRF operations for Boulder, Colorado-based Eco-Cycle, discussed how MRFs today are installing sophisticated Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System (SCADA) systems to provide detailed metrics that can be used to determine where adjustments are needed. 

“In the MRF world, we’re measuring an output for operating performance,” Perez said. 

Of the types of metrics that can be recorded in a MRF operation, Perez focused on two: production and operation, encouraging recyclers to ask questions such as: “How many times did that conveyor belt stop today?” or “What was production downtime on that shift?”

In addition to learning more about downtime, operators are able to consolidate information using software. Perez shared how Eco-Cycle tracks hand speeds at various picking lines, from paper to containers. 

“It’s a very important concept to be involved in metrics,” Perez said.

Data also was highlighted in the last session of the MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum, “Developing Materials Audit Process and Client Feedback Loop,” when John Perry, recycling manager for Houston-based Waste Management, said recyclers can make better decisions if they measure key variables. Waste Management performs audits daily and is able to use collected data to improve quality, operations and in some cases contract renewals.

When he was recently questioned about one MRF’s moisture content, Perry said he had “very detailed records” and was able to prove his side correct.

“When you show [customers] data, they become reasonable,” Perry said, adding, “They don’t argue with data.”

Perry offered an equation to convey the significance of maintaining maximum inbound quality: i+e+s+p=quality, with i representing inbound quality; e, equipment maintenance; s, sorter efficiency; p, process control. “If you diminish a variable what happens to one of those variables?” Perry asked. “You want to make sure the inbound quality is the highest it can be.”

In that final session, speaker Jim Greer, manager of recovered materials processing for the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach, part of the largest county in Florida, recognized that eliminating inbound contamination entirely is not practical. “With residents, if we could get them all on the same page, we wouldn’t be here,” he stated.

Several speakers throughout the day addressed how education coordinators at MRFs were the first job to get cut after the 2008 recession. Perez said these people were part of community outreach programs, which talk to communities, get people involved and focus on inbound materials. The lack of education coordinators across the U.S. has been noticeable.
“My biggest worry is that after 2008 a lot of recycling coordinators got let go and material continued to get increasingly bad,” said Pieter Eenkema van Dijk, president, Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, Stamford, Connecticut. 

Van Dijk spoke during the “Separation Super Session,” which included speakers from four large equipment manufacturers in the recycling industry in addition to Van Dyk: CP Group, San Diego; Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon; and Machinex Industries Inc., Plessisville, Quebec.

Nat Egosi, president of RRT Design & Construction, who moderated the Separation Super Session, acknowledged how recycling industry veterans have invested more than 25 years in developing infrastructure of MRF processing systems. However, many in the industry, Egosi said, think a plateau has been reached regarding equipment such as screens.

Van Dijk predicted the future of MRF processing systems will not involve screens. Rather, optical sorters will get the job done, he said. 

In addition, the advent of robots in MRFs is still more a topic of conversation than certainty. Van Dijk said his company had a lot of issues with robotics. Van Dyk Recycling Solutions created a robotic optical sorter with a number of arms, each which can collect a different material, from aluminum to polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The problem, Van Dijk said, dealt with the rapid movement of the arms, which need a lot of suction to release materials. While the robot was faster than one person could move at one time, it wasn’t faster than two people.

Equipment continues to evolve as the material entering a MRF changes. Egosi said, “If the ton is evolving, it’s not static. You’re measuring something that’s changing.”

Mark Henke, senior recycling manager of Republic Services, Phoenix, who led the “Screens” session Tuesday morning noted how there is less paper in streams today and due to lightweighting, PET bottles are thinner, causing them to be sorted along with paper. This shift from 3D to 2D containers has required more quality control on the backend, Henke said. 

“There are good ways to regulate what goes to that screen,” Henke said. “You want to ensure screens aren’t overworking each other.”

As with just about anything in life, practice makes nearly perfect. “It takes practice to get this right,” he said.

Henke suggested experimenting with screens. He advised recyclers to make one significant change at a time until they become familiar with the system, such as tilting the screen 45 degrees. 

“Whatever changes you make, if you keep that recipe saved, it’ll be there,” Henke said.

Beyond changing streams, Henke said the core issues surrounding MRFs today include needing to make significant investments and that at least half of MRF owners lack confidence in the business.

“There’s a cost to do everything,” Duffy said in the Plant Optimization session following the Screens session. 

Of ReCommunity’s 28 MRFs, about 18 of them have been modified from dual stream to single stream. He explained that in one of its converted MRFs, there are 230 maintenance duties to take care of whereas newer MRFs have 88 maintenance responsibilities.

Duffy also shared how ReCommunity is running the exact same processing system at two different MRFs located about 1,000 miles apart. With three optical sorters running 35 TPH, Duffy said they are operated completely differently and end up with different results on the backend.

“Every plant is completely different and you have to recognize that,” Duffy said.

The inaugural MRF & Recycling Plant Operations Forum was held in Chicago Oct. 17-18.